In Part 1 we began to look at some of the ways the Christian church has unhelpfully responded to homosexuality, and this post will pick up where that one left off. (I would recommend reading Part 1 before reading this post but hey, I can’t make you.)
A few years ago I had dinner with Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian and a vocal leader in the “Side A” movement trying to legitimize monogamous same-sex relationships within evangelical churches. He was a smart, kind, winsome person and I thoroughly enjoyed the time we had together and the honest conversation we had with a small group of pastors and some same-sex attracted people in our church.
At one point, one of the questions he posed (to me) was “Why do you get to be married and I don’t? Isn’t that unfair?”
I can’t recall the number of times I have heard some version of Matthew’s sentiment. Something along the lines of: “It just can’t be true that God wouldn’t bless loving, monogamous same-sex relationships.”
“What you are saying about God and His design for sexuality can’t be true. Scripture can’t mean what the church has always believed it to mean.”
“It just can’t be true.”
“It just can’t be true” is a different way of saying “I do not have a plausibility structure for how this could possibly be true.” In other words, in Western culture in general, the idea that a loving God would call a human to deny a significant sexual or emotional desire simply does not compute. It feels like there is no key that unlocks the dilemma, so something has to bend and become untrue.
We do not have the space to get into all the arguments being put forth for why God would bless monogamous same-sex marriages, but Timothy Keller does a good job of succinctly addressing some of the major themes here if you are interested. For the purpose of this series, I’m more concerned with the tension of why so many in our culture feel like God could not or would not call someone to deny such a desire–the “it just can’t be true” feeling.
And I would argue to get to the bottom of that, you actually have to start with a failure of the church. Because biblically speaking, there is a key that unlocks the tension felt here, and it’s called a biblical theology of suffering.
Prosperity Theology Sinks In
We’ve all heard some version of it: the late-night TV preacher spouting so-called “name it and claim it” or “health and wealth” gospel. He’s saying that if you just follow God, if you just obey Him, then everything’s gonna go well for you. Sickness and joblessness and despair will evade you, you will prosper, God will bless you. He uses stories from the Bible (out of context many times), so to the uninformed it may sound legit.
And while many professing Christians (and churches) would recognize this as a very lacking, misleading picture of a relationship with God, there is no doubt that this has sunken into the deepest crevices of American Christian thought. God becomes a means to an end, a tool to get what you really want (which is ease and comfort and blessing.) Follow this train of thought to its logical conclusion and the idea that God would ever call you to do something really difficult feels altogether wrong.
The problem is, earthly prosperity or ease is not promised to any believer in Christ. A thorough reading of the Bible reveals that many of the most ardent followers of Jesus lived terribly difficult earthly lives and instructed us no expect no different (1 Peter 4:12-14). It is believed that all of Jesus’ disciples except John were martyred, so when Jesus said “pick up your cross, deny yourself and follow me” to them in Luke 9:23 he meant that very literally.
My favorite passage that illustrates this is Hebrews 11:32-40:
32 And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— 38 of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
Notice the absolutely jolting transition that happens mid-verse in verse 35. Some conquered kingdoms, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, received back their dead by resurrection…and some were tortured? Mocked and flogged? Chained, imprisoned, stoned…sawn in two?
If there is one word that I would NOT use to describe the situation here, it would be the word “fair.” Both groups were faithful, and the first group got incredible, legendary things…and the second group, well–they got some of the worst things that can happen to the the human race.
This only makes sense if looked at through the lens of something that is well-seen in the book of Hebrews and the entirety of the Scriptures–that Jesus is such a great reward that any differences we experience on the way to Him become inconsequential. Have an amazing life? Great–you get Jesus. Have a really difficult life? You get Jesus too, and somehow He is such a great reward that it all levels out in the span of literally, forever.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
Jesus tells a brief story in Matthew 13 where He says if we really knew what we were getting by being united to His kingdom, we would joyfully give up anything and everything else. We’d sell everything, joyfully.
I heard a pastor summarize it this way: prosperity theology leads you to think “Follow Jesus and everything will go well for you” while a biblical theology of suffering leads you to “Follow Jesus, it may end really badly for you–but you get Him.” This is a deeply needed truth for us Western Christians to hear, because in our country famous Christians get book deals and conference tours, while in many other countries famous Christians get beheaded. This has effected us all vastly more than we even understand.
So when Matthew Vines asked me how it was fair that I could marry but he couldn’t if he wanted to remain true to His same-sex attraction, I said this: “To me, that’s the same question as ‘Why does my friend’s daughter have cancer and mine doesn’t?’ And my answer is ‘I don’t know, but I know that in both instances we both get Jesus and He is enough.'”
At the end of the day, the belief that God cannot or will not ask you to do something incredibly difficult during your short years on this Earth is simply not a biblical idea. It’s an idea birthed from a very dangerous and pseudo-biblical thought system that has sunken deeply into our cultural psyche and left many casualties in its wake of destruction. It is a thoroughly American idea, but not an historic Christian idea.
The turning point in Hebrews 11 actually gives us a beautiful picture of why someone would willingly sign up for hardship for the sake of Jesus: Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Why would someone refuse to accept release from an immensely difficult calling? “So that they might rise again to a better life.”
Seeing this lived out in my same-sex attracted Christian friends is incredibly moving, because while culture would say they are suppressing and inhibiting their own joy by refraining from acting on the desires they feel, they say they are actually seeking a deeper and more long-lasting joy. They are concerned with their happiness 1000 years from now as an eternal soul, not simply their happiness next week. They willingly refuse to accept release so they might rise again to a better life and gain the treasure hidden in a field, while others undoubtedly mock their stupidity for selling everything to purchase a patch of grass. But they have a treasure under their feet and in their hearts that sustains them.
How Churches Can Help
We will get to much more of how the church can help shortly, but here are some ways churches can help in huge ways to provide a theological plausibility structure:
- Preach a biblical theology of suffering, often. This really just can’t be over-emphasized. If you are a pastor in America, just assume that 75% of your people believe (even if they’d never say it out loud) that God should always bless them and never ask them to do anything hard. Regardless of sexual orientation, this will come to light when people crash against the inevitable hardship of life.
- Shepherd same-sex attracted folks well. In our church family there is no other issue that we are more patient, gracious and loving with. Oftentimes people have just been crushed by well-meaning (or ill-meaning) Christians or churches. There is so much confusion and hurt, and the things presented in this post (although altogether true and beautiful I believe) almost feel like a foreign language at first–they are so, so different from the cultural values that it’s just not an easy step to get there.
- Call heterosexual people to repentance. In many churches there is a glaring double standard where homosexual sin issues are treated like the worst type of sin imaginable, and heterosexual sins are swept under the rug or put up with. This is radically unhelpful, hypocritical, sinful and double-minded, even. (Need more words? I’m sure I can come up with more…)
- Call married people to deny themselves and follow Jesus. One of the most difficult parts of all this is that the pastors and leaders (like myself) who say these things are many times happily married heterosexuals. So are a majority of church members in most cases. So it can feel like the people who get all the good things are telling the other group “you can’t have any of the good things I can!” I’m not saying that all things will be equal by any means, because Hebrews 11 tells us they certainly won’t be. Some will have “easier” roads than others, and we’ll all have our own kind of hard. But it’s worth asking the question: for the happily married heterosexuals with 2.5 kids in our churches, what does following Jesus cost them? How can they pursue sacrificial obedience and cross-bearing through following Jesus? Our crosses will not look the same, but if we are truly following Him, there will be a cross for each one of us.
I originally planned for this to be a separate post, but I decided that it just can’t be. I believe more than ever that the two (theological and practical plausibility) are inseparable if we are ever to be a faithful witness in this issue.
I’ll illustrate what I mean by another part of our conversation with Matthew Vines last year. At one point in the dinner, he said this: “If you call same-sex attracted Christians to celibacy, how many of those people in your church have been invited relationally into families? How many have been grafted into the regular rhythms of a nuclear family, shared holidays with them, or even been invited to live with a family if necessary?”
One of the celibate same-sex attracted people raised their hand and said “Every person I know in our church has been invited into that–most by multiple families.”
Matthew’s response to that was so heartbreaking to me: he said, “That’s really rare.”
When the Church was Family
Matthew has traveled all over the country, visited churches that agree with him and many who don’t. He has a very significant pulse on the interactions between gay and lesbian people and the church, and when he heard the answer to his question, I believe he was genuinely shocked. Like he didn’t even consider that as a possibility when he asked it, because he’d never seen it before.
How tragic is that?
What his question revealed is that there is a significantly lacking practical plausibility structure when same-sex attracted Christians look at the churches they find themselves around. They look around and think, “How could I survive here, walking the difficult road of singleness? What kind of support would I have?”
This is the most heartbreaking thing for me when I talk to same-sex attracted Christians in other parts of the country. They describe this sense of feeling alone and unloved in their own churches, and really not even sure how they would go about feeling loved and known and having depth of relationship because little is set up in the church to foster that. So they sign up to serve here or there, they join a Sunday School class or they try to forge some relationships on their own. But even in many churches that have a somewhat healthy version of small groups, it feels like being a family is so far from the realm of possibility that some eventually raise a white flag and just say “I can’t do this anymore. I tried.”
Christians who do not marry (whether heterosexual or homosexual) many times feel like singleness is a lifelong sentence to loneliness and despair. It does not feel like a plausible way to live life. These people are faced with what feels like a lose-lose situation: I can be lonely and keep my faith, or I can have a partner and alter or lose my faith (at least to some degree).
And this is a result, in many ways, of the church failing to be what the church was intended to be. Our failures have made the obedience of those who don’t fit the typical molds harder than it ought to be.
Here’s how we teach this idea at our church: God did not send Jesus to die to redeem you as an individual only–He is redeeming a people, and He’s making that people His family. We are not to simply smile and wave at each other on Sundays, but to actually do life together as a family. Loving each other, serving each other, praying for one another…practicing the 59 “one another” commands in the New Testament that you simply can’t do during an hour-long event on Sunday.
We break up in to small groups of people to do everyday, ordinary life with, gathering in various rhythms throughout the week, and when we do so these other Christians become primary relationships in our lives. We celebrate birthdays and holidays together. We help raise one another’s kids. We bear burdens and drive moving trucks and console sorrows.
And when unmarried folks are walking in a community like that, many times choosing to live with other unmarried people (or sometimes moving in with a family for a season), singleness no longer feels like a death sentence. Because they are not alone.
He Sets the Lonely in Families
Acts 2 describes the church as a family who lives and worships through everyday life with one another, and the great tragedy is so much of American Christianity has drifted so far from this picture that it actually seems weird to them. This is no lie–our church has actually been called a cult multiple times before (by other Christians!) because we fight our hardest to live this out.
But the church can be a family. (Your church can become a family, whether you believe it or not). God designed the church to be family on such a level that all of our relational needs can be met through our brothers and sisters. We were designed for relationships, not simply marriage–and marriage will one day cease and give way to an even greater marriage between Christ and the church.
Church–if we’re going to be a refuge for the same-sex attracted, we should fight with all we have to make one’s calling not feel like a death sentence. We should practice the gospel-centric idea that “the cost of your obedience is not just on you–it’s on us too” and welcome friends into our lives like family, sharing burdens and joys. Living like this brings more joy to everyone, and theological plausibility becomes a lot easier to swallow when you fight for a practical, relational plausibility structure by being family together in Christ.
Because being lonely is not a plausible or desirable way for any human to live. The good news, however, is that God never calls anyone to be lonely (even if He does call you to singleness). God places the lonely in families, not the other way around. He is more anti-loneliness than anyone, but the solution is not always marriage. The solution, at least here on Earth, is the church–the family He gave His life to create.
This idea may seem laughable to many, which is a downright travesty. But I have many friends, both homosexual and heterosexual, walking a path of singleness and getting their relational needs met through their spiritual community, living rich and fulfilling lives and not believing the lie that they are somehow incomplete humans. These people are some of the most beautiful, radiant, complete people I’ve ever met, their fullness pulsing from a much deeper source than any significant other could ever provide.
These communities who welcome with the weight of family might feel like a unicorn, but they are not–I have seen proof with my own eyes. They speak hard and glorious truths about God while also lifting every finger possible to lessen any burden in those hard and glorious truths. They don’t simply call people to obedience from a safe distance–they bear up under heavy loads together such that obedience begins to feel like a joy pursued together. They sell their various belongings to buy a field with a treasure hidden deep deep down, scorning the jeers that come their way with a smirk, because they know. They know.
Christians, our communities should reflect nothing less. May they be so.