I have “liked” Anne Rice on Facebook so I get a steady diet of articles on over-the-top pastors and churches railing against gays, relegating them to a special hell and declaring them and homosexuality to be the greatest evil of our time. They, and the hateful and heretical Westboro-Baptist types, glean huge amounts of press (especially given their small numbers) so that the “anti-gay Christian bigot” line gains buoyancy in the mainstream gay-marriage narrative.
It is not my intent in this blog or in my life to defend everything that anyone who claims to be a Christian says or does. To be a Christian doesn’t mean that you just go to church or call yourself a Christian or abstain from certain behaviors. You can’t be a nice clean cup on the outside but filthy inside. Jesus said that those who belong to the family of God are “those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.” (Luke 8:21) Those who are truly in Christ will be transformed internally and this transformation will be evident in their words and deeds. So I examine, defend, and set as a standard for my life the scripture that Christ spoke and upheld. Regarding homosexuality, I will not defend the actions of churches or leaders who do not walk the fine, but necessary, line of upholding scriptural standards of sexual purity while simultaneous throwing their doors open to people with all manner of sexual histories and brokenness.
The bible has strong admonitions for those who are in a position of leadership within the church. It warns that “not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” and that we must watch our life and doctrine closely because if we do we will save both ourselves and our hearers. (James 3:1 & 1 Timothy 4:16) This means that those who are in a position of authority within the church must scrutinize their doctrine. They must take an honest assessment of their lives. We have to be living out the difficult principles of scripture that apply not only to sexual purity but to finances, charity, our words, our thought-life, our relationships, parenting, submission to civil authorities, etc. Only then can we humbly speak to our children, congregation and the world about God’s ways and principles. To quote Brennan Manning, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”
With that admonition to all Christians, especially pastors and leaders, let’s return to the question above.
It does seem that many churches are focusing on the issue of gay marriage disproportionately. Part of that, again, may be press coverage from an often left-leaning media. Some of it, however, is that we are being asked to (sometimes) vote on the issue. If there were measures on the ballot to institutionalize single-parenting or polygamy, stiffen divorce laws, or in some way reduce the number of out-of-wedlock births I would hope that the church would be examining those subjects just as deeply. But if gay marriage is a central focus of your church, you are missing the gospel.
The church global and local needs to be talking about all major social issues. Jesus says “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto Me.” James 1:27 states “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” The “least of these” is anyone who is needy, downtrodden and marginalized. “Orphans and widows” is like bookends for the spectrum of those who cannot care for themselves. That means that the disabled, the orphaned, foster children, those in prison, immigrants, the trafficked, single mothers and their children, the unborn and the elderly all need to be targeted for real, organized and ecumenical action. Few local churches can do all of these things, but every church should be doing at least one of these well. To be biblical, social action must accompany the teachings of scripture. Advocating for traditional marriage in the public sphere cannot overshadow the responsibility that Christ has placed on His followers to meet the needs of the hurting.
So what about when we in the church do talk about homosexuality. I know that many gays who grew up in the church feel that homosexuality was set up as “the BIG one-” the biggest, worst sin that anyone could ever commit. For those in the church struggling with same-sex attraction (usually unwanted same-sex attraction) this set them up for isolation, shame, and the development of a secret life. They may have felt that they couldn’t share their hurts, fears or hearts with anyone at church. Some turned to pastors or other leaders, at great risk, only to be rebuffed with shallow or insensitive responses like “homosexulaity is a desease,” “just pray about it” or “this is something you’re choosing.” The very place where we all should feel safe removing our masks, often times becomes the one place where people wrestling with same-sex attraction feel the most unsafe. In his article “Same Sex Science” Stanton Jones write this of the church leadership:
We were complicit, even if ignorantly and passively so, in the cultural embrace of the disease conceptualization of homosexuality. We off-loaded responsibility for the articulation of a thoughtful, caring, theologically rich, and pastorally sensitive understanding of sexual brokenness grounded in our various religious traditions by conceptualizing homosexuality as a disease, and so we were unprepared for the vacuum created by that explanation’s timely demise. The best ecclesiastical, professional, legal, and social policy will be founded not on falsehoods or grotesque and indefensible simplifications but on a clearheaded grasp of reality in all its complexities, as well as on a humble recognition of all that we do not know.
Make no mistake, the church does need to be addressing the topic of sex. Congregants must know that they can get reality-based, sensitive, truthful and biblical information and direction in every area of life from church leadership. All on-going unconfessed sin leads to separation from God, but sexual sin carries with it unique and especially harmful earthy consequences (1 Corinthians 6:18). The discussion on sexual behavior should address the damaging effects of porn, adultery, lust, covetousness, divorce, pre-marital sex, promiscuity and sexual abuse. Homosexuality is above none of these. Any teaching on biblical sexuality should include the truth that there is very real healing and victory available to us through Christ. Teaching on sex should recognize sex within marriage as a gift from God. Teaching on sex should include the humble acknowledgement that very few of us have followed the path of sexual purity without fault. (For an excellent outline on how sex has been misunderstood and misused within the church and what the Bible really has to say about it, I recommend the chapter “Sex- God, Gross, or Gift” in the book Real Marriage by Mark and Grace Driscoll.)
Leaders and laypeople, get this one right. We can neither major on the topic of gay marriage, nor avoid the topic of homosexuality altogether. We must address these issues with the recognition that all of us fall short and that Christ offers relevant answers to every area of our life. Advocating for traditional marriage must not overshadow our mandate to sacrifice for those in need, whether next door or across the world. And we must have proven love for all, otherwise we are just a resounding gong and clanging symbol.