Homosexuality and the Church
Some of you were like this; 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.
1 Cor. 6:11
We were on our way home from a family vacation and decided to spend a day in New Orleans. We wandered through shops, ate beignets, and had a sidewalk artist paint a portrait of our son. As the day drew to a close, we headed for the car. We wanted to be out of the downtown area before nightfall.
As we headed out of town the denizens of Bourbon Street were beginning to wander through the area. Several of the men were walking hand in hand and openly expressing their affection. My son and I were disgusted and expressed it with vehemence. My wife just looked sadly out the window.
As I continued my diatribe she finally looked at me and asked, “Doesn’t that make you sad?” That wasn’t the emotion I was feeling. “Why should I feel sad?” I asked. “Doesn’t it bother you that many of them will die of AIDS?” she replied. Frankly, it hadn’t crossed my mind. I was much too busy enjoying my righteous indignation.
I never could have imagined that my next trip to New Orleans would be to the 2001 Southern Baptist Convention, where I would make a motion asking the SBC to establish a task force to “inform, educate and encourage our constituency to be proactive and redemptive in reaching out to those who struggle with unwanted same sex attraction.” Nor could I have imagined the incredible response of our Convention.
The journey back to New Orleans began in 1994. God began to convict me about the negative tone of my every pronouncement on homosexuality. Nothing I said even hinted at God’s love or redemption. I realized that if anyone struggling with homosexuality heard me preach, it was extremely unlikely that person would ever come to me for help. I also realized that if anyone did, I was woefully unprepared to offer that help.
I began to ask around and discovered my predicament was quite common. After several months I discovered a group called Exodus. I wrote to them, asking for information. In the packet of information was a brochure for their annual conference, which I had absolutely no intention of attending. I had absolutely no desire to spend a week with 800 homosexuals—ex or otherwise. But much to my amazement, in June 1995, I found myself in San Diego for the 25th annual conference of Exodus International. My life would never be the same.
In the years since then, numerous men and women have told me of being wounded by pastors and other Christians saying just what I had said for many years. One young woman told of sitting in a Sunday School class where one of the leaders said that he was uncomfortable around homosexuals and he hoped none would come to their class. She responded, “I’m glad you weren’t the first person I met at this church. I wouldn’t be a Christian now.”
A man in a small group told of his desire to get out of homosexuality. He finally worked up the nerve to attend a church where he heard a pastor tell the “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” story. It would be months before he found a church where he felt safe.
I cringed as I realized that this could have been me. I wondered how many may have heard me and gone away wounded and discouraged. Had I driven some back into the arms of the homosexual community with my cleverness?
In the coming months I was made aware of how little I knew about this struggle or how to help someone who wanted to change. But I had changed! I was determined to learn all I could about this issue. I was committed to do all I could to awaken the church to the need and to our responsibility.
The Church and the Culture
When the tsunami struck Asia in 2004 I could not understand how something so powerful could travel hundreds of miles across the ocean and not be noticed. Incredibly it traveled at speeds up to 500 miles per hour. In less than 24 hours a tsunami can cross the entire Pacific Ocean.1
For many years activists have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to normalize homosexual relationships. While most people have gone about their business unaware, the momentum has been building. Today we face a movement of incredible power. Too many Christians still don’t understand the stakes.
This is not a call to combat homosexual activists. We must understand that we do not war against flesh and blood. We are not at war against our culture. Indeed, we are called to be salt and light in that culture. This is a challenge to open our eyes to the thousands of men, women, mothers, fathers, children, and yes, husbands and wives whose lives will be tragically impacted by this sin.
I often get calls from parents and students who are confused by what they’re being taught in classrooms. They have been assured homosexuality is genetic and that change is neither desirable nor possible. Those who believe otherwise are mindless cretins or worse, “fundamentalist Christians.” A constant barrage from television and media reinforces this. I fear that we have seriously miscalculated the impact this will have in the long term.
Some studies appear to show a moral resurgence among our youth. However, it would be foolish to assume this continual onslaught can be overcome if we don’t begin offering accurate information with a loving and compassionate delivery.
As this wave continues to grow the conservative church faces a challenge that is ultimately greater than the issue of homosexuality itself. I’ve met many people in Southern Baptist churches who have expressed uncertainty about the issue of homosexuality. These people do not think of themselves as questioning Scripture. They are committed to the authority of Bible.
They just express doubt about the possibility of change. They know what Scripture says, but they have not heard clear answers to the strident voices of our culture. Thus begins a slow but certain erosion of confidence in the authority and infallibility of the Word.
This could be a moot point if the growing surge succeeds with hate crime legislation. With a multitude of politicians and a dearth of statesmen, Congress seems certain to push through legislation creating a special class for homosexual victims of crime. If you believe this is not a serious threat to our freedoms, you haven’t been keeping up. Similar legislation has already led to Christians opposing homosexuality being silenced in other countries.
In middle America the Iowa senate approved an anti-bullying bill that would require local school boards to adopt policies that restrict harassment of all students, including a specific mention of gay and lesbian students.2 The senators overwhelmingly rejected an exception for private schools. Administrators of Christian schools are now fearful of lawsuits if they teach that homosexuality is a sin.
Further, many activists now insist that it is hate speech to say that you believe the Bible teaches that homosexual acts are sinful. If you doubt this, look at the furor surrounding General Peter Pace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has probably done more to secure our freedoms than any of his critics. But when he dared offer his opinion that homosexual conduct is immoral, the firestorm was immediate and blistering.
Certainly Christians should be opposed to all forms of bullying and harassment. We can agree that hate emanates from the pit of hell however it is manifested. However, history has shown us the tragedy that results when the government determines which thoughts are acceptable.
Our children are also being impacted by this surge. It is no longer unusual for us to hear from parents of young children who have come home from school and announced they now believe they are homosexual. Unfortunately, they are often encouraged in that belief.
We can’t speak of culture without mentioning another frightening development—the subtle marginalizing of Christians. It is one thing to face the threat of political gamesmanship and persecution. It is quite another to be reduced to a caricature, an object of ridicule.
I watched an episode of 20/20 one night to see several former homosexuals share their stories. I knew some of them personally and was curious to see how their stories would be received.
Each spoke convincingly of the change in his or her life. They told of the joy and contentment they had found. They were not argumentative. They spoke in the simple tradition of John 1:9: “One thing I know: I was homosexual and now I’m not.”
But John Stossel and Barbara Walters were much more impressed and supportive of those who said they tried it and it didn’t work. Period. End of discussion. Walters then mentioned “the growing body of opinion that says that people are born homosexual” to which Stossel responded, “Right. Which is one more reason I’m skeptical. You can repress these feelings, but it’s hard to believe you can change.”3
Well of course a good journalist should never let facts get in the way of the story he wants to tell. The “growing body of opinion” is just that. Opinion. And it is growing because many journalists continue to report opinion as fact. In spite years of headlines trumpeting the latest “gay gene” discovery, not one scientifically accepted, replicable study has shown a genetic causation.
Dr. Francis S. Collins, head of the Human Genome project and one of the world’s leading scientists works at the cutting edge of DNA. He said, “There is an inescapable component of heritability to many human behavioral traits. For virtually none of them is heredity ever close to predictive” (italics mine).4 Dr. A. Dean Byrd says “It is important however, to note that even in … studies with identical twins, that heritability is not to be confused as inevitability. As Dr. Collins would agree, environment can influence gene expression, and free will determines the response to whatever predispositions might be present” (italics mine).5
Many studies by secular scientists have shown that change is possible. But Walters, Stossel, and a host of others seem to have missed those studies. They have chosen instead to misrepresent those who have changed and give the appearance that these folks are both deceived and deceivers. Stossel closed the interview segment with his “give me a break” comment. The inference? These people are kooks. Pay no attention to them.
The Church’s Response
So how should the church respond to this tidal wave of activism and misinformation? How should the church respond to homosexuality in general?
Dr. Jeffrey Satinover says, “Here then is the conundrum we face … On the one hand we must decide how best to counter the tactics of intimidation and refute the false claims of a group that operates in the hostile mode of raw, power politics. On the other hand we must retain the profound compassion and fellow-feeling toward individual homosexuals that we ourselves need and yearn for from others. We must respect as fellows the very individuals whom we may reject as claimants in the public square.”6
For at least the last two decades our actions and attitudes have been primarily reactive. If we’re to stem this tide, we must change this. For many of us this change must begin with our own attitudes.
Dr. Barrett Duke, vice-president of the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission, said, “The church must come to terms with the entire issue of homosexuality and develop a comprehensive ministry approach to homosexuals. It is imperative that the church reassert the Bible’s moral high ground, but that it do so out of a comprehensive strategy designed not merely to convince homosexuals that the homosexual lifestyle is sinful. This strategy must include a genuine love for people trapped in the homosexual lifestyle that seeks first to minister and love, not to condemn. Until the church develops such an approach, it is likely that attempts, thus false, to create an alternative spirituality will thrive.”7
Clearly we need to be able to respond to the continual stream of misinformation. But we’d better not let that obscure our original objective. Our task is to proclaim the power of the risen Christ to set all people free. We must be clear that this freedom includes freedom from the power of sin as well as the penalty of sin. Our burden must be for all those who have been deceived. It does not matter that many don’t think they are deceived. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to convict.
With a measure of complicity on our part we have too often been portrayed as bigots, as angry, hateful people. As we clarify our objectives and our attitudes we can change that.
Dr. Albert Mohler has written that “Our ministry to homosexuals is not as the sinless ministering to sinners, but as fellow sinners who bear testimony to the reality of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. To the homosexual, as to all others, we must speak in love, never in hatred. But the first task of love is to tell the truth, and the sign of true hatred is the telling of a lie. Those who genuinely love homosexuals are not those who would revolutionize morality to meet their wishes, but those who will tell them the truth, and point them to the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.”8
Our hearts should be broken when we see statistics that show so much brokenness in homosexuals. While it is certainly not true of all homosexuals, statistically same sex strugglers have a significantly shorter life span than do heterosexuals.9 This is true even without AIDS. They are more subject to emotional struggles, have higher suicide rates, higher rates of depression, and higher rates of substance abuse.
Activists blame this on guilt inducing conservative Christians. However, these statistics are true even in places such New Zealand and Norway, countries that are extremely gay friendly.
Again, we must examine our hearts to determine if this grieves us or causes us to say, “I told you so.” It should be a powerful motive to proclaim the healing power of Christ.
I once wrote of a friend who is a homosexual activist: “He is not my ‘project’—I genuinely love him. Because I love him I want him to know all the fullness and joy that God has for him. But I am fully convinced that none of us can know His fullness unless we’re walking in obedience to His Word. Intimate fellowship with Jesus comes only to those who will hear His voice and follow Him. Amos 3:3 (HCSB) asks, “Can two walk together without agreeing to meet?”
If we believe these things, we can ease up on our determination to prove activists wrong. We can proclaim His truth and trust Him to convict.
The Church: A Refuge
Given the enormity of the challenge, we must do all in our power to make our churches safe places, places of refuge.
Many Christians have no idea how a person struggling with unwanted same sex attraction would perceive their church. I’ve often heard people say, “We don’t have that problem in our church.” At times I’ve wished that confidentiality agreements did not prohibit me from saying, “Oh yes, you do.”
Sometimes I’ve gotten a call from a church that has just discovered one of its members is dealing with homosexuality. Usually they express a sincere desire to do the right thing. But when I suggested they contact the local Exodus referral member and have them come out and speak, a polite silence ensued.
I tried to remind them that other people who struggle with addictions are watching to see how redemptive they are going to be. If they are content to do cosmetic repairs, others will suffer. This includes the family of the same sex struggler. We often forget the parents, the mates, the children, and the close friends.
Several years ago I read an article about an architect who could not understand why groups representing the disabled were criticizing him. He felt that he was doing everything the building codes required. One day a group brought a wheelchair and encouraged him to tour one of his buildings. For the first time he understood the complaints.
Many churches think they are open to strugglers but have never considered what this looks like to someone dealing with this issue. We should be open to asking those with experience to help us understand. Leadership must also be educated. We are often unaware how our comments can wound someone who is reaching out for help.
The first time I attended Living Hope in Dallas-Fort Worth I sat in on a group composed of parents of homosexual strugglers. I was astonished to find that not one had felt safe in sharing their pain with their Sunday School class or their pastor. They had heard too many jokes or negative comments.
I’ve often heard how difficult it is to find help. Group members have told me of having to contact national ministries to find out where help can be found. Nothing had ever been mentioned in their church.
If we are serious about change, we will do all we can to make people aware of where they can find help. Names and numbers of ministries and counselors should be posted. But be sure those resources have experience with this issue. Address the issue redemptively from the pulpit. Host special events designed to equip and educate your members.
A true understanding of God’s grace will preclude us from seeing this sin as being any different from our own. One of the things that most powerfully impacted me when I attended my first Exodus conference was the intensity of the worship. Songs were not just being sung. They were being poured out of hearts overflowing with gratitude and love. I was reminded of those who just wanted to cling to the robes of Jesus. As I contemplated this I decided it was because 700-800 people were so keenly aware of what God had freed them from and how much they needed him. Then I sensed God saying “I’ve done just as much for you. You’re just not as aware or as grateful.”
Most of you have never struggled with same-sex attraction. It is difficult for us to comprehend that. I finally realized that the fact that it was wrong did not make the pain any less. Tim Wilkins, director of Cross Ministries in North Carolina, says, “One of the reasons that evangelicals have not made much progress in reaching homosexuals with the gospel is their failure to empathize with the excruciating pain homosexuals experience.”10
Many straight men have had revelatory experiences when they realized that their own battles with lust were not significantly different. It has been described as “same root, different fruit.” Whether that battle with lust involves the same or a different sex, the answer is the same.
The Church and Healing
We cannot hope to be an agent of change until we clarify some basic beliefs. What do you believe about homosexuality? Is that belief firmly rooted in Scripture? Does your head belief match up with your heart belief? What do you really believe about change?
In a group meeting one night a man said “I wish there was some place in the Bible that specifically told of someone overcoming homosexuality.” I told him there was. He looked at me skeptically and said, “I’ve never seen that.”
I read 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (HCSB) to him. I pointed out that this quite long laundry list included homosexuals. Paul concluded the passage by saying, “Some of you were like this; 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” (emphasis mine). Both the context and the tense of the verbs make it clear that change has taken place. Some once were homosexual. They were no longer.
This leads us to what we really believe about the power of Christ. The Bible tells us that anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. (2 Cor. 5:17) Does this apply to homosexuals? I am frequently amazed by both Christians and homosexual activists who don’t believe that same sex strugglers can change. Some think celibacy is the only hope.
Over the years I’ve worked with many drug and alcohol addicts. Some I’ve convinced to check into various residential recovery programs. Others attend area support groups for a time. Clearly, even our secular culture supports this. Alcoholics Anonymous and the Betty Ford Center are frequently discussed as positive programs. What fascinates me is that I have seen far more people successfully leave homosexuality than I have seen overcome drug addiction. But I’ve yet to meet anyone would argue that drug addicts can’t change and we should just accept that fact. The same power that set captives free in Corinth can set people free today.
Whether or not your church knows anything about homosexuality it can still minister healing just by being the church. When I first attended Living Hope ministries in Dallas-Fort Worth, the director invited me to get involved. I explained that I was new to this and had no idea how to help anyone who struggled with homosexuality. I was told that just by being there and showing my concern many would be helped. In all honesty I thought I was being patronized.
But true Christian friendship is a powerful tool. One man told of coming out of a lifetime of homosexuality and joining a church that knew nothing about the issue. But they knew how to mentor. They knew how to be a friend. The men were not afraid to embrace him, to express their love for him. The pastor checked on him and took him to dinner. He spent time in the homes of the members. Healing took place. Any church can do that.
I cannot say too strongly how much the church needs to get fully involved in this issue. The world is well aware of our disapproval. We desperately need to communicate our message more clearly. The church has much to gain from these men and women for whom Christ died. We have lost out on some incredible giftedness.
Once after a group meeting at Living Hope a group of us sat in a nearby restaurant. A young woman who taught school in an area district turned to me and said, “So, Pastor Bob, tell us what you really think of us.”
The question caught me off guard, and I hesitated a moment until I remembered something my wife had said. I replied, “You guys are my heroes. I have so much admiration for you. You are some of the most courageous people I’ve ever known. You have chosen to fight one of the fiercest battles any of us will ever have to face. And you have done it with the world telling you that it’s OK, so just accept it. And for far too long you’ve done it without the support of the church. You have been willing to fight on alone and keep pressing toward God. I think you are truly incredible people, and the church is very fortunate to have you.”
The wave comes ever closer to the shore. The hour is late. Can you hear the cry of God’s hurting children?
Bob Stith is the Southern Baptist Convention’s national strategist for gender issues and the representative of the convention’s Task Force on Ministry to Homosexuals. Contact him and learn more at www.sbcthewayout.com.