Burning Issues

This message by preached by Rev. Dr. Chris Ritter on February 16, 2014 as part of a series of messages entitled “Burning Issues”.

[Early in the service there was a reminder that the message is rated “PG-13” in that reference would be made to human sexual activity. Parents with concerns were encouraged to take advantage of our ministries for their children.]

When I was the pastor of another church, I had the opportunity of working often with a dear woman who was very involved in our drama and music ministries. I will call her “Susan”. Susan was visited from time to time by her brother, “Lawrence”, who would take the train down from Chicago. Lawrence was very gifted in decorating and set design and would generously bring with him fabrics and textiles and help decorate our church for the various seasons. He was a humble, gentle, kind, timid man with a passion to serve and a love for the church. Lawrence was openly gay. He was a very active member at Broadway United Methodist Church near Chicago where the majority of the church membership was also gay and the atmosphere was very affirming.

Susan messaged me a couple weeks ago on Facebook and I asked permission to share her words:

 I saw tonight that you will have a sermon soon on “Is gay ok?” I decided to put my thoughts about the subject to you privately, instead of on your post for all to see. As you know I was 3 years older than Lawrence and I believe he was born gay. I watched him growing up and my earliest thought about the subject was that he should have been born a girl. He has certainly endured persecutions during his whole life at the hand of others over this situation and he states, “Who would ever choose to be this way, certainly not me!”
I must say that Phil [Robertson] ruined my “Duck Dynasty” themed Christmas with his comments just before Christmas. I have enjoyed the show because it is funny and they have not to date said anything political, homophobic, or racist on the show.
[She goes on to say that she bought Duck Dynasty gifts for her family members for Christmas before the controversy arose].
I tried to prepare Lawrence for this, but he was angry with me just as I feared, and I don’t blame him one bit.
When I was reading the one year Bible through last year, I was looking especially for any references in the Bible about homosexual relations.
I noticed that references to adultery and other sexual sins were mentioned far more often in the Bible than homosexual sin. The latter was mentioned more in terms of open sexual relations in public like an orgy, especially in relation to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Then Paul mentioned it, but then he had also preached against marriage unless you just couldn’t control your sexual urges! I just have a very hard time with people like Phil [Robertson] saying such hate filled speeches in the name of Christianity and as if they are experts with the Bible! OK, there is my two cents worth. Good luck with your upcoming series. Love you. Susan”

She later wrote….

 I ask that you pray for Lawrence because he is no longer active in church and is angry with God for making him gay. He claims he is Atheist and does not believe in heaven. But when he stated he was mad at God for making him gay, I knew he can’t be atheist. He has suffered so much and is very bitter at this stage in his life. He doesn’t want to hear anything about God or Jesus from me. So also pray for me that I will do or say what will help him the most. THX

Do you hear in Susan’s words the depth of love that she has for her brother? Do you hear the deep, deep spiritual questions? Do you hear the tremendous pain? The question I want to address this morning in our “Burning Issues” Message Series is: “Is Gay OK?”
There is no bigger topic in our culture right now. There are people on extreme ends of this conversation that are literally “foaming at the mouth” and unable to hear the concerns on the other side. This may be where some of you are today. I am going to ask that you take a deep breath and do your very best to get into an open, listening mode. If I make a point you strongly agree with, I am going to ask that you not cheer. If I make a point you strongly disagree with, I am going to ask that you not jeer. We are addressing a very difficult set of issues that touch almost everyone in this place in a direct or indirect way. I would guess that every one of us have someone we love who is gay.

For us, this is not a “them out there” issue. This is very much about us. As the pastor of this church, I know that we have seekers in our congregation who trying to reconcile their sexuality with their faith. We have people who are openly gay. We have people with same-sex attraction who are actively trying not to act on those feelings. We have people, married and unmarried, who privately struggle.

Our denomination, The United Methodist Church, is “ground zero” for the debate around homosexuality and Christianity. We are the only Mainline Denomination that has not either split over this issue or decided to allow gay weddings and ordinations. In November, a retired United Methodist Bishop, Melvin Talbert, performed a same-sex wedding ceremony for two men in Alabama in defiance of church law and against the permission of resident bishop, Debra Wallace-Padgett. Charges have been filed against the bishop and litigation is pending. A rural Pennsylvania pastor, Frank Schaefer, was put on trial for performing the same-sex wedding of his son. He was offered the opportunity to stay in ministry and avoid trial if he would agree to abstain from performing more ceremonies of this kind. He refused, lost his credentials, and had to leave his church. Other pastors on the West Coast this past week received only a one-day suspension for the same offense, and this has caused great controversy.

Every four years we have General Conference, which is the only group that can speak for our denomination as a whole. For the past two decades there have been demonstrations bordering on riots that have spilled onto the floor of General Conference over this very issue. The reason why homosexuality is such a watershed issue in our church is because, behind it, lay the larger issue of biblical authority: “If the scriptures are not authoritative on matters of human morality, why are they authoritative on any issue?” There are some who believe that our General Conference in 2016 could be the last one for our denomination as it is currently configured.

For the record, the United Methodist position on homosexuality is that all people, regardless of sexual orientation, are people of sacred worth. We support equal rights in civil society for all people, regardless of sexual orientation. We support laws in society that define marriage as the union between one man and one woman. We support efforts to stop violence against all people, regardless of sexual orientation. We view homosexual practice as incompatible with Christian teaching. Ceremonies celebrating same-sex unions are not to be conducted by our clergy or held in our church buildings. Self-avowed, practicing homosexuals are not to be ordained or considered as candidates for ministry.

In American culture at large, we seem to have recently reached a tipping point where majority opinion has swayed in favor of welcoming homosexuality into the mainstream. There is a “full-court press” underway in the media to approve, accept, and celebrate the lifestyle and those who find themselves resistant are finding themselves marginalized in any number of ways. The very human issue of how we love and welcome each other has become mixed with a very political agenda and the church finds itself caught in the cross-hairs. There is a question being shouted in and at the church right now: “IS GAY OK?”

I take up this topic today very reluctantly. It is not my practice to single out a particular group of people for scrutiny in one of my messages. What we do here on Sunday mornings is talk about how we can become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. We all have areas in our lives that are out of sync with God’s Word. Despite the sermon title, you will not hear me refer much to the word “gay”. Gay is a short word with a very big meaning. It has political meaning. It has sexual meaning. It references a certain lifestyle but conjures up lots of different images. I will speak rather about same-sex attraction.

I also don’t want to address this issue in isolation of the larger picture of human sexuality, which is incredible complex and varied. There are not just two categories: Gay and straight. Some have suggested that it is better to think of a continuum between exclusive attraction to the opposite sex and exclusive attraction to the same sex. Lesbianism has its own issues apart from male homosexuality. We are all sexually broken in one way or another. Just look at the labels we throw around to try to describe the sexual landscape: Straight, Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual, Transgender, Transsexual, Transvestite, some people call themselves “Queer”, Pedophile, Polyamorous. The variety is endless. These labels can become idolatrous in and of themselves. As believers in Jesus, we are called to find our identity in Him.

Not everyone with same-sex attraction is gay, in the sense that if often meant by the word. Not everyone with the desires is acting upon them. These are the most under-represented group in our culture. They do not name themselves. You will not find them waving any flags or demanding their rights. They have chosen to deny themselves. The heaviest burden I feel today is for these folks… for the man or woman sitting in church, feeling the inner conflict and asking the question, “Is this a battle worth fighting?” The culture has spoken. What says the church?

What we are going to do today is look at what the scriptures say. This message will be slightly longer than what you are used to, but I want to have time at the end to talk about how we might apply the truth of scripture as a congregation. Would you stand for the reading of God’s Word?

1 Corinthians 6:9-20
9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. 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.
2 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

A while back, one of my children was listening to some Christian teaching about homosexuality and they said to me, “But Dad, I like gay people.” (They said it almost as if they should feel guilty.) My response was, “I do, too!” I can honestly say that I have never met a homosexual person that I do not like. Speaking stereotypically, if you have an emotionally sensitive man that is in touch with his feeling and cares about his appearance, that is a very winsome person! Who would I rather spend the day with: The average televangelist or Ellen Degeneres? I will take Ellen! She is funny, generous, humble, open-minded (or at least seems so). There is so much about her that is a positive role-model.
Some would say, “As long as we treat other people well, isn’t that what a Christian ought to be? Isn’t that the Golden Rule?” Jesus said that there is a Great Commandment that sums up all the rest:

37 Jesus replied, “‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22)

The “horizontal plane” of loving others follows after the “vertical plane” of loving God. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) Over and again in scripture we see the emptiness of claiming to love God without obedience to God. That includes sex, but is certainly not limited to it. The Pharisees often congratulated themselves that they were not like the sinners. Jesus said that someone who humbly admits his need for grace will be justified long before those who stand in their own self-righteousness. Heterosexual Christians should be slow to judge someone who has a struggle they do not have. There is plenty of sin in our own hearts to work on without worrying about finding sin in others.

We seek to be a church that models grace. However, just because we all fall short of the standard does not mean that there isn’t one. There seems to a strong effort to declassify homosexual practice as sinful and list it among the things that can be celebrated in the church with ceremonies and blessings. The issue before us is not whether homosexual people are welcome in the church. Of course they are! The issue is what we can endorse as a healthy expression of human sexuality. There is no need to repent of something that is not sin. Is homosexual practice sinful? For this we need to look deeply into the scriptures.

We will start with the Old Testament, but we only need to mention a few things here briefly. In summary, the Old Testament is completely unanimous in its harsh condemnation of same-sex relations. There are two main passages you might hear quoted. One is often quoted by biblically illiterate conservatives on this issue. The other is often quoted by biblically illiterate liberals. Someone without much Bible knowledge that wants to use the Bible to condemn homosexuality will often go to one notable story in Genesis: The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Briefly, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were so wicked that God sent two angels, disguised as humans, to assess the extent of their perversity. The angels traveled to the city and were going to spend the night in the city square. Lot, Abraham’s nephew, lived in Sodom and urged the men to come home with him because the city was not safe. They went into Lot’s house and, that night, the men of the city came beating on Lot’s door demanding that he send his guests out so they could gang-rape them. The angels struck them blind, led Lot’s family out of Sodom, and destroyed the cities with fire and brimstone.

While it is true that this paints a picture that is the height of depravity, it is hardly the best argument against homosexuality as practiced in 2014.  Gang rape (and rape of any kind!) is wrong no matter who is doing it, and to whom. For five years I traveled to the Mardi Gras in New Orleans with No Greater Love Ministries to do street evangelism. If you have never been to Mardi Gras, good for you! There are family events during the day, but at night on Bourbon Street is the most debaucherous, perverse party imaginable. We would march down the full length of it carrying a large wooden cross as a witness to the Gospel. One end of Bourbon Street was the Gay District. Horrible things happened there. One year, a man wearing not much more than a dog collar stood and refused to let us pass for about a half hour. But there were sexual sins on both ends of the street. Sin is sin no matter who is doing it. Sodom and Gomorrah are often cited by people who want to believe that all homosexuals are depraved maniacs. This is simply not the case.  In the world of the ancient Near East, man-on-man rape was about humiliation rather than gratification.

The passages that are often quoted by biblically illiterate people on the liberal side are found in Leviticus. Leviticus is part of the Law of Moses and clearly rejects homosexual practice. Leviticus 18:22 says, “ You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” This is clear and concise. It is in a list of sins that are most extreme. This verse is between “Don’t offer your children as sacrifices to Molech” and “Don’t have sex with an animal.” The prohibition is repeated in Leviticus 20:13: “ If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” (The reference to the death penalty troubles many people, but it should be noted that there were many things that had the death penalty assigned to them, including being disrespectful to your parents. If a child was habitually disrespectful to their parents, the parents could call the elders of the community and the child could be stoned to death. How many of us would be dead right now? This was probably never really done in practice, but it stood as a harsh warning.)

The reason Leviticus is often quoted by those seeking to approve homosexuality is because of what else Leviticus says. Leviticus contains dietary laws, clothing laws, and purity laws that none of us observe. A “straw man” is presenting a weak argument that you disagree with in order to bash it to the ground. Leviticus makes a good straw man because you can say, “So, you are sitting here in church wearing your cotton blend shirt, you went to Red Lobster Friday night for Valentine’s Day, and you eat pork chops. Who are you to quote the Bible?” This argument is purposefully theologically naïve by pretending that Christians have not been reading the Old Testament for two thousand years and making distinction between the moral laws which carry over into Christian practice and the ceremonial laws that are fulfilled by Christ. It is just another way of choosing to be biblically and theologically obtuse.

But this is all a good segue to help us move into the New Testament passages related to homosexuality. I will touch on the gospels briefly because something I hear over and over again is that Jesus had nothing to say about homosexuality. And that is true. Can we take from Jesus’ silence that he was somehow supportive of same-sex relationships? I would say that there is an obvious reason for Jesus’s silence on this issue: There was no debate. Much of Jesus’ teachings were occasioned when someone came to debate him on a topic. Jesus ministered exclusively in the Jewish context. There was no debate in First Century Judaism about homosexual practice. It was universally spoken against.  Jesus did, however, say that he did not come to change any of the Law of Moses and criticized the Pharisees not for what they believed, but how they practiced their faith. Jesus didn’t talk about most things. I don’t know anyone who could successfully argue that anything that Jesus did not expressively prohibit is fine to do.

Jesus did, however, teach on marriage. In Matthew 19, Jesus was questioned about divorce and this gave him the opportunity to express his theology of marriage:

4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Jesus’ theology of marriage was rooted in the Creation Story. If you want to know what God intended, go back to the Garden. Go back to the Creator’s design. This was an effective argument against divorce, but it is an even more effective argument against so-called same-sex marriage. Jesus defined marriage as the enduring union between a man and a woman. The complimentary design of males and females is reflected in the words of our marriage ceremony: “Marriage was instituted by God who created us male and female for each other.”

Christianity did not encounter open homosexuality until it ventured out of Israel and into the Greco-Roman world through the ministry of the Apostles, particularly Paul. We read earlier from 1 Corinthians because Corinth was known for its sexual variety. Paul puts sexuality in its Christian context by stating that those who follow Christ are not their own. We are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Sexual sin is especially pernicious because it affects us so deeply and personally. We are to present our bodies as instruments of righteousness.
When talking about sex, our culture uses at its starting point the idea that everyone should be sexually fulfilled. This is not where the New Testament starts. You are not going to have all you sexual desires realized if you are a committed follower of Jesus Christ. Jesus calls us to a narrow path, the path of life. Self-denial is part of the cost of discipleship. As you follow Jesus Christ, he will teach you how to bring your sexual urges under submission to his leadership.

There are two places where homosexual behavior is included in lists of vices to be avoided. Those places are 1 Timothy 1 and 1 Corinthians 6. There are two words that are translated as something akin to homosexual behavior. One is “Malakoi”. It literally means “soft ones” and is translated as “effeminate”, “male prostitutes”, or “passive homosexual partners.” It is a reference to males who make themselves purposefully effeminate and offer themselves to other males for sex. The other word is “arsenokoites”. It literally means, “men who take other men to bed.” It is translated “homosexual offenders” and “dominant homosexual partners.” It is an unusual Greek construction because Paul seems to incorporate the words from the Greek Old Testament of his day, the Septuagint. But it is clear enough that Paul is talking about people who are either on the dominant or passive side of a homosexual pairing.

Those who want to debate that the New Testament clearly teaches against homosexual practice will do so by arguing the meaning of these two words. They will argue that what Paul is really talking against is the practice of Pederasty which was not uncommon in the Greco-Roman world. An adult male would take on an adolescent male, often with permission of his father, into a mentoring relationship that included sex. The boy would become the passive sex partner. I have done extensive study of the origins of these words and I find no warrant for this narrow definition. Some try to make the point that the monogamous, loving homosexual relationships we see today were totally foreign to the world of the New Testament. I call this the “something new under the sun” argument. (Ecclesiastes says there is nothing new under the sun). The inference is that if Paul could see what we see, he would change his mind. However, we have ancient pieces of Greek pottery that depict two adult men, in sexual pose, looking lovingly into each other’s eyes. We have no reason to believe that the mutual homosexual relationships we are seeing today is something Paul could not have imagined in his day.

All of these debates are a bit academic because we have the First Chapter of Romans to deal with. The Book of Romans is the very source for our understanding of salvation though faith in Jesus Christ. Unlike many epistles which address specific circumstances in specific places at specific times, the Epistle to the Romans is a thorough, exhaustive treatment of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ and the implications for both Jewish and Gentile believers.

Paul’s first, sustain theological argument is that we are all sinners, Jews and Gentiles alike, and are, by nature, under the condemnation of a Holy God. Paul doesn’t have to convince the Gentiles of this, but he might have difficulty convincing his Jewish audience, many of whom still relied on adherence to the Law of Moses as their righteousness. Paul takes three chapters to make the case for universal sinfulness and he begins in Chapter One by laying a very clever trap that he will spring in Chapter Two.

To lay this trap, Paul needs two obvious examples of human sinfulness to get his Jewish audience thinking about the nature of sin. He chooses two things that represent a fundamentally flawed orientation toward God and others. He chooses two sins about which there is no debate: Idolatry and Homosexuality.

Romans 1:18-32
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Why does Paul choose idolatry and homosexuality as “Exhibit A” and ‘Exhibit B” in his argument for human sinfulness? As I stated earlier, the Gospel exists in two planes: The Vertical Plane of our relationship with God and the Horizontal Plane of our relationship with others. In idolatry (worshipping idols like a carved image of a human or animal) the sinner, through a darkened mind, misses what should be obvious. There is a God, a Creator, who is bigger and better than anything found in the creation. Paul is establishing the basis for God’s judgment on those who don’t have the revelation of scripture, but he is also pointing out the way that sin blinds us to the obvious and causes us to assign ultimate value to lesser things. This sin, he will say, carries with it its own penalty: “They become fools, exchanging God’s glory of the image of animals and creeping things.” This is sin in the vertical plane.

Then he switches over to the Horizontal Plane of human relationships. Now, again, Paul wants to get everyone in his audience shouting, “Amen!” so that he can bring that hammer down on them, too, in the next chapter. But it is worth noting that the best, clearest, example he can think of for obvious human sin is homosexual practice. Paul’s indictment is that they have exchanged the natural uses of their bodies for the unnatural. Just as an idol-worshipper ought to be able to see that there is an awesome God that stands over creation and is worthy of ultimate praise and worship, a person ought to be able to tell what God intends with human sexuality. It ought to be obvious what a penis is for, based on God’s design. It ought to be obvious what a vagina is for, based on God’s design. This is true not only for the way the two fit together, but because of the procreative function which is only there when the complementary genders unite. The phrase “God gave them over” is analogous to the phrase regarding idolatry: “They became futile in their thinking.” This is a sin that carries with it its own penalty. There have put their own wisdom and desires over the wisdom of the Creator.

A phrase I hear often in our culture is “love is love.” The argument goes, “Two people love each other. Why be afraid of that? It is just love. What could be wrong with love?” In Christian theology, explicit since Augustine in the 4th Century, wrong loving lies at the very heart of our problem as human beings. One of the marks of sin is that our loves are disordered. We love things that end up degrading us spiritually and turning away from the things that bring us to God. The process of salvation is allowing God to rightly order our loves and our passions.

There is a lot of energy spent in the debate over homosexuality on the question of where homosexual desires come from. Is it genetic? Is it nature? It is nurture? I personally don’t find this debate all that interesting. I assume that it is complicated. Why do any of us love what we do? Some have argued that if we could prove it was genetic, the debate would be over. Ann Curry asked this question to Pastor Rick Warren: “If we could prove 100% that it was biologically hardwired into someone, would that change your mind?” He said, “No” and she almost fell off her chair! He explained, “I am genetically predisposed to want to sleep with every beautiful woman that I see. That does not mean that I should do that.” I really feel I am genetically predisposed to obesity. I gained fifteen pounds in January. I have almost lost that back in February. (I don’t think it is fair that people like Erik can eat all the want and not gain weight!)

I have even heard the argument that there are examples of homosexual behavior in the animal world so that proves that it is natural. We live in a fallen world. So, anything an animal does is alright for us? Male hippos try to kill their male offspring. Not OK for us. A monkey threw poop at me at the zoo. Not OK for us. I don’t know any ethicist, religious or otherwise, who would say that if you really, deep-down want to do it, then it is automatically OK.

I am your pastor. I love you. I am not saying these things because they are popular or easy. I am giving you today what I understand as the unanimous witness of the Christian scriptures. These are definitions of marriage and morality that have stood for over five thousand years in all the great world religions.

And I also want to state what you already know. Our culture is heading in a different direction at a break-neck speed. Last year I did a wedding in Iowa and the marriage licenses there don’t say “Bride and Groom” anymore. They say, “Party A” and “Party B” because of same-sex marriage. Illinois has become the 17th state in the union to approve same-sex marriage and this will become a reality in June of this year. There are churches in this area that are prepared to celebrate these unions.

I would like for someone to give me a copy of the new definition of marriage. If we are not going with the enduring relationship between one man and one woman, which definition are we using? Two people committed to each other? Why only two? Some people feel they need more than one partner to be happy. Should we stand in the way of their happiness? If so, on what basis? Are we just making it up as we go along?

Same sex marriage has been a reality in Europe for some time. Where same-sex marriage is allowed, the marriage rate in general tends to drop. People are skipping it altogether. What we are doing is not re-defining marriage but further un-defining it. This is not to say that there are not examples of same-sex couples that are more affectionate, committed, and nurturing than some traditional marriages. It is also not to say that opening marriage to same-sex couples is the only thing that degrades the sanctity of marriage. Divorce degrades the sanctity of marriage. Living together degrades the sanctity of marriage. Spousal abuse degrades the sanctity of marriage. Pornography degrades the sanctity of marriage, as does adultery. But our faith holds that the definition of marriage was established by God in the Garden and is much bigger than the happiness of the two people in the relationship.

Things are going to get very strange. There is tremendous social pressure being exerted for us to conform. You are not invited to be a part of things if you hold the wrong view on this issue. Pastors are not invited to come pray at public events. Your businesses are not frequented. It would be easy for us to become negative and defensive. I am going to ask this church that we not take the bait.

The early Christians were an extreme minority in the Roman Empire. They seemed like an insignificant sect. They were surrounded by alternative lifestyles and pagan worship. Cult prostitution, pederasty, slave marriage, and polygamy were everywhere. The Gospel Message thrived in such an environment. Two thousand years ago the Roman Empire would have never predicted that the little Jewish sect of Christianity would have ever survived. But today we name our children, Matthew, Paul and Mary and we name our dogs Caesar and Nero.

This church is going to love and be in ministry to everyone. People need Jesus! We are going full steam ahead with loving God and loving people. We hear a lot today about acceptance. What our culture seems to mean by acceptance is not caring how people live their lives. This is a cheap substitute for Christian love. Love is caring. Love is saying, “You matter and how you live matters.”

I want to speak, finally, to those who have at least some level of same-sex attraction, whether it is mild or exclusive; whether you are open about it or hold it as your deepest secret; whether you are pursuing it or resisting it. This body of believers loves you. Anyone who would seek to do you harm will have to deal with us. We want to be the kind of church, because we are all people of sacred worth, which upholds and cares for your dignity and your soul. Just because we may not always be able to celebrate your choices does not mean that we do not celebrate you and God’s gifts in you.

“Pastor, my son says he is gay. What should I do?” Love him! Hug him twice as hard now as before you knew. “What if he wants to bring someone for Thanksgiving dinner?” Give them the best seat at the table. Anyone important to your child should be important to you. The great fallacy of our age is that I have to agree with you in order to love you. This is simply not the case. The Gospel message is not “I’m OK, you’re OK”. The Gospel is that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us and there is new life available through Him.

About six years ago, I was working on a project for our conference and I had occasion to meet a Christian brother in St. Louis that operated a ministry to the sexually broken. I asked him to tell me his own story. He shared that he was raised in a conservative Pentecostal church. When he was a youth, kids from his church used to compete with other churches in Bible Bowl competitions. He was the champion. He knew the Bible inside and out and even had large sections memorized. His secret was that he experienced same-sex attraction.

He married young hoping the feelings would go away. They didn’t. Eventually he succumbed to his urges and began living a double life. He was only discovered when his wife contracted a sexually transmitted disease from him. She stuck with him and he started on a journey of seeking wholeness. He found someone who knew his struggle. This person told him this: “When you are boy of 8, 9, 10 years old, you start to be drawn toward masculine things. You stay away from girls and hang out with the boys. You pull away from your mom and get interested in what your dad is doing. You have a little tank inside you that is getting filled with masculinity. Sometimes, the tank doesn’t get filled. You get rejected by the other boys. You get bullied instead of accepted. You experience rejection. For some intelligent, sensitive boys, if they hit puberty without their tank being full, those desires become sexualized and they are experienced as same-sex attraction.” This man in St. Louis told me that the journey toward healing for him looked like forming healthy, non-sexual relationships with men who could pour into his tank what he had missed all those years before.

Do what you want with the psychology of that, but here is what I took away: We need to be the kind of church where we fill each other’s tanks! We need to offer the kind of community where people find the Gospel acceptance that perhaps they didn’t find earlier in life. Being a “tolerant” church really doesn’t require much of us: “Eh, whatever….” Being a church committed to life transformation will require everything from us. It is hard. It is messy. It is expensive. But it is exactly the model followed in the First Century and that is why Paul could say, after he listed all the various vices of his day and ours: “And such were some of you, 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.”
Let’s don’t settle for being an accepting church. Let’s be a loving church.