Homosexuals and the church
Homosexuality | How can Christians live in a culture that celebrates the gay lifestyle, yet worship among believers who rarely talk about it—except to condemn it?
by Peter Hubbard
Posted 10/12/13, 12:01 pm
When asked how Christians can be salt and light to homosexuals, I now recommend two books: Rosaria Butterfield’s The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Crown and Covenant, 2012) and Peter Hubbard’s Love Into Light: The Gospel, the Homosexual and the Church (Ambassador International, 2013). Hubbard is lead pastor of North Hills Community Church in Taylors, S.C. Here’s chapter 1 of his book. —Marvin Olasky
Jim started looking at porn when he was eleven years old. Soon he had migrated from heterosexual porn to homosexual porn. At first the pictures called out to his curiosity, but soon he realized he was being swept into something bigger. Pornography became his own miniature Walt Disney World. He could go there whenever he wanted and visit as many attractions as he desired. These excursions provided Jim with a way to escape his insecurities and troubles. His parents were fervent Christians, and his family attended a conservative church, so his conscience plagued him. When he was fourteen, he gave in. After a particularly convicting Sunday school lesson, he stayed after to speak with his teacher. The dam he had built around his heart opened, and his sins, fears, and shame poured out with tears all over Mr. Connell, his much-loved teacher who had been praying for him for over a year. Jim told Mr. Connell about his porn habit and the weight of shame he carried. He wept over the lies he had told his parents in order to cover up his secrets and the cruelty he had shown toward his younger brother and sister when they would not leave him alone. With Mr. Connell’s help, Jim asked God for forgiveness and trusted Jesus’ death on the cross as his only hope. Jim became a new person. He confessed his sin to his parents and asked his siblings for forgiveness. He felt like his insides had been washed clean, and the load of sin had been removed … for the most part. Yet one thing remained. Like King Saul’s confession before Samuel, he could “hear the bleating sheep.” As Jim plunged into his youth group activities and began participating in his church, he was haunted by his remaining secret. Jim had confessed everything, except that the pornography he had indulged in was homosexual porn. He had been transparent only to a point. Why? I’ve asked a lot of “Jims” why. Why is this one sin so different? Why would a teenager under “great conviction” gush with a confession of lying, lusting, fearing, and fuming, but hold back one sin from his tidal wave of confession?
Several years ago I began to wonder about the testimonies shared in our church. We are passionate about honestly and openly applying the truth of the gospel to deep hurts and stubborn habits. As I look back over what was then almost 20 years of pastoring our church, I could remember people standing up during our open services, confessing their sins and asking for prayer.
“Please pray for me. I am a religious hypocrite.”
“I have been a crack addict.”
“God has shown me that I have worshipped food.”
“I’ve been addicted to porn for 20 years.”
“My unfaithfulness has destroyed my marriage.”
“I am an alcoholic.”
I’m still amazed when I see our church family move toward the broken like a team of paramedics rushing toward an injured driver—weeping, hugging, praying, truth-speaking. No condemnation. Just love and hope.
But in all of those services, I could not remember one time when someone said, “I am battling with SSA [same-sex attraction]. Please pray for me.” We had heard hundreds of miraculous testimonies of Christ’s saving power, but none of them had included even a passing reference to homosexuality. Our church previously hosted a conference for people who desired freedom from the homosexual lifestyle, and I knew we had men and women who struggled with SSA who had received counseling, but no one had confessed that publicly. I also began to realize my failure as the teaching pastor. I regularly told stories and made applications throughout sermons to help our people apply God’s word to their everyday lives. Yet I could not remember giving an illustration or application specifically aimed at helping those who battle with SSA. Was I simply inconsiderate or homophobic? Maybe I was protecting the kids. Or maybe my silence revealed something deeper.
I see four possibilities for our silence.
HOMOSEXUALS ARE NOT LIKE US: THEY ARE “ABNORMAL”
Maybe a homosexual is a different kind of person. When we look at people, we often label them normal or abnormal. Addicts, racists, and hypocrites may share their desire for a new life, but not homosexuals—at least not publicly. I saw this several years ago as I sat in my office with a man who was visiting our church. He shared his homosexual story layer by layer, pausing after each revelation to give me a chance to ask him to leave. Finally he just blurted out, “You don’t want me here, do you?” He couldn’t wait any longer to hear me reject him, so he rejected himself for me. He assumed that a Christian church would look at a homosexual as a deviant kind of person, a person who does not belong around “churchy” kinds of people. He saw himself as an invader.
HOMOSEXUALS HAVE TURNED ASIDE: THEIR SIN IS “UNNATURAL”
Perhaps homosexuality is so insidious that to admit susceptibility to SSA in the church is the moral equivalent to confessing a fling with terrorism in an airport terminal. Suddenly everyone is unsettled. A peaceful church service has been infected by treachery. Benign sins have associated with malignant. After all, aren’t gay activists responsible for the moral decline of our nation? And isn’t homosexuality sexual sin on steroids? Perhaps we are afraid to talk about homosexuality in the church because we are convinced it is a different kind of vice, an abomination that threatens all we hold dear. Maybe the church members can offer a handshake, but trust and brotherly oneness seem unthinkable. After all, didn’t the Apostle Paul describe homosexuality as the unnatural expression of God’s passive judgment? Sure, homosexuals can be forgiven, but will they be embraced by the family of faith?
HOMOSEXUALS HAVE A PARTICULAR IDENTITY
Some sins seem to originate outside of us, or at least they don’t seemto easily define us. But as one man explained to me, “Homosexuality strikes at the core of who I am.” SSA does not seem like a sexual choice, but an identity that colors and shapes all of life. The man in the church who struggles with SSA may feel a little like a husband whose wife left him for another man. The abandoned husband doesn’t know where he fits in. He feels he can’t attend a singles class yet, but feels out of place with married couples. He is trying to recapture his identity. An SSA struggler in the church can experience this kind of disorientation without any prospect of relief. Couple that internal confusion with the ubiquitous “gay identity” message inundating our nation, and the result is often verbal paralysis. Neither the struggler, the pastor, nor the congregation knows what to say.
HOMOSEXUALS ARE WHO THEY ARE: THEY WILL NOT CHANGE
Perhaps people are reluctant to share their SSA struggles because they lack hope for change. We’ve all heard stories of homosexuals who were promised freedom and renounced the gay lifestyle, only to embrace it again. A church might listen to an SSA testimony with cynicism; therefore, the less said, the better. One church constitution I read recently singled out homosexuality as a twisted sin. However, no other personal sin was enumerated in that article. Therefore, an SSA struggler in the church could be tempted to conclude that homosexuality is unredeemable. There is hope for the angry and the greedy, but not for the homosexual.
Whatever the reason for the lack of SSA testimonies, their absence revealed a problem much bigger than homosexuality. How can Christians live in a culture that promotes the gay lifestyle, yet worship in a culture that never talks about it (other than possibly to condemn it)? Is the atmosphere of our church different from the church the Apostle Paul ministered in? He apparently knew people in the church at Corinth who had left the gay lifestyle, and he fearlessly referred to their new identity. Could the way we speak or don’t speak about SSA be an indicator of a deficient understanding of the gospel of Jesus?
Jesus often exposed people’s misunderstanding of his identity and mission by pointing to their relationships with the marginalized, rather than highlighting their score on a doctrinal exam. For example, when he was eating at Simon’s house, and “a woman of the city, who was a sinner” approached Jesus to weep and worship at His feet, Simon murmured against Jesus and the woman. He interpreted Jesus’ association with the woman as a sign of ignorance: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” Jesus exposed Simon’s lack of love and then described the woman’s extravagant affection as an indication of her robust experience of forgiveness. “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven.” The means of experiencing forgiveness did not come through normal religious channels (law-keeping, penance, etc.), but by faith in Jesus—“Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
In the presence of Jesus, the very reasons to be distant from the outcast and silent about her struggle become the motivation to move toward her and speak words of love. The absence of hope-filled words spoken to those struggling with SSA in our church exposed our lack of love, and our lovelessness is not cured by simply trying to be more friendly. Plastic smiles and patronizing handshakes cannot cover up cold hearts. As with Simon, Jesus is using “unacceptable” sinners to invite “acceptable” sinners into the light of his love and forgiveness. As we look carefully at the reasons homosexuals might feel marginalized, we begin to see our own hearts more clearly and the story of the gospel more accurately.
In light of God’s redemptive story, let’s reword the four possible reasons for SSA silence in the church.
HOMOSEXUALS ARE LIKE US: WE ARE ALL MARRED IMAGE-BEARERS
If we are true followers of Jesus, we cannot move toward someone struggling with SSA in mercy and compassion—as Jesus would— while still viewing them as “abnormal” or unclean. Is not this struggler made in the image of God, a breathing billboard of God’s creative brilliance? We value her because she is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” And her intelligence and affections point beyond her to the Author of thought and the Composer of love. Her Creator defines normal. Calling her “abnormal” dehumanizes and distances her. “Abnormal” also deifies the deluded one who coronates himself as “normal.” What honest human being, other than Jesus, can look in the mirror and see the standard of normality? True Christianity creates a casteless society, because we see people through the lens of God’s particular creation: “you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” Therefore, what God has knitted together, let no man tear apart!
HOMOSEXUALS HAVE TURNED ASIDE: ALL SIN IS TWISTED
The Apostle Paul did describe homosexual acts as “contrary to nature.” However, he was emphasizing that homosexuality is a physical illustration of our spiritual condition. The bodily inversion reflects our spiritual inversion. God does not give a homoerotic person over to his sin because he is a homosexual, but because he is an idolater. “Therefore God gave them up in the lust of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” Paul’s point is not to rate homosexuality as a “10” on the sin scale, nor to warn the SSA struggler that he is approaching the last train stop on the track to hell, but to highlight the incongruity and insanity of idolatry. Paul widens the scope of his indictment to include “all manner of unrighteousness” (covetousness, envy, deceit, gossip, etc.) and then ropes in the hypocrite, “You condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” His argument culminates in chapter 3, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” Once again, we are “together.” Yes, we are all made in God’s image, but through birth and choice we have all turned aside. The image of God is distorted and perverted. Like spiritual zombies, we are “dead in the trespasses and sins … following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air … carrying out the desires of the body and the mind.” We are victims swept along by abductors, marketers, and demonic forces. This is why homosexuality or bitterness or anxiety does not feel like a choice. We have been drafted by strong forces and engulfed by painful experiences. We suffer.
But we are also villains. We are “carrying out the desires of the body and the mind.” In other words, we are doing what we want to do. We seek to mitigate our suffering, but end up exacerbating it. My sin always seems reasonable to me, and your sin inexcusable. Left to myself, I can find a way to justify anything I really want, and the choices I make can hurt the people I most love. I sin.
This is who we are. Our stories vary in detail as the fall leaves vary in color, but we are made of the same stuff.
HOMOSEXUALS CAN FIND A NEW IDENTITY
Our sin goes deeper than our sins: our sin seeks to define, permanently, who we are. We “went after worthlessness and became worthless.” In addition, we often give ourselves labels that threaten to define us. We, the image-bearers of the King of the universe, mislabel ourselves “alcoholic,” “loser,” “workaholic,” or “homosexual.” But God refuses to leave us to worthless labels. “For our sake He made Him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. Jesus absorbed our sin on the cross and rose again so that we could “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” The gospel of Jesus is not an invitation to do better or try harder; it is a death certificate that unfolds into a new birth certificate, providing us with a renewed identity! The image of God that was marred in the Fall is revived in Jesus. We have been killed in Jesus’ death, buried in Jesus’ tomb, and raised in Jesus’ resurrection. When we turn from our sin to trust in Jesus, our old self no longer defines who we are and what we do. Our old slave masters have been exposed and deposed. We have enrolled in the ultimate witness protection program and have been issued a new name, “beloved,” a new address, “in Christ Jesus,” and a new reason to live, “a holy calling.” The gospel penetrates to the root of the heterosexual and homosexual dilemma: Who am I? Whose am I?
HOMOSEXUALS AND HETEROSEXUALS HOPE IN GRACE TOGETHER
New identity in Jesus is not simply individual, but communal. In Jesus, we who were enemies are now brothers and sisters. We who used and abused one another now love one another. We stand together in grace. But we also struggle together. Our new identity does not preclude temptation or hardship. Old cravings still hunt and haunt us. New deceptions wait in the shadows to ambush us. If “change” means the homosexual will never hear the voice of homoerotic desire, then maybe metamorphosis is delusionary. But what fornicator, thief, or liar who has turned to Jesus never expects to hear an invitation back to lusting, stealing, or deceiving? Therefore, we “pay much closer attention to what we have heard lest we drift away from it.” We “exhort one another every day” and set our “hope fully on the grace that will be brought to [us] at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Our current struggles are not the final word! Our ultimate hope is fulfilled in the new heaven and the new earth.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Over the past several years, our church has asked God to teach us how to speak faithful and helpful words to those who struggle with SSA. The fruit of this endeavor has just begun to emerge, but it is full of grace. For example, Jill has been a member of our church for several years. Yet only two or three people knew about her lesbian past. As our church began to speak more freely, biblically, and compassionately about homosexuality, she became convinced that God wanted her to share her story—all of it. This was terrifying to her. She was happily married and had grown children, and she feared what her kids would think. She also was actively involved in many ministries in the church. Would people label her? Would they lose confidence in her and pull away? The Holy Spirit gave Jill grace to share her testimony publicly and privately, and she began to notice a pattern. “Those I have told who have a rich view of grace and a personal understanding of their own sin are the most able to rejoice with me at what God has done. Those relationships have been unaffected or even enriched by my transparency.” Isn’t that exactly what Jesus said to Simon, “He who is forgiven [much], loves [much]”? A church characterized by a small experience of forgiveness will be characterized by a small expression of love. As our grasp of the gospel of Jesus grows, our awareness of our own sinfulness deepens, and our experience of the grace of God expands. “Acceptable” sins and “unacceptable” sins merge. Teenagers and adults open up their closets and begin to walk in the light. God uses the very “sinners” who intimidated or threatened us to expose our own hearts and bring us back to Himself.
This excerpt from Love Into Light: The Gospel, the Homosexual and the Church is reprinted with permission. ©2013 Ambassador International. All rights reserved.
1 1 Sam. 15:14.
2 Rom. 1:26–27.
4 Luke 7:37.
6 Luke 7:47.
7 Luke 7:50.
8 Gen. 1:27.
9 Ps. 139:14.
10 Ps. 139:13b.
11 Rom. 1:26.
12 Rom. 1:24–25.
13 Rom. 1:28–2:1.
14 Rom. 3:10–12.
15 Eph. 2:1–3. The preposition “following” (kata) is best translated here “under the control of.” See Clinton Arnold’s discussion, ed. Clinton Arnold, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Ephesians, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 130. Jesus said, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34).
16 Jer. 2:5.
17 2 Cor. 5:21.
18 Eph. 4:24.
19 Rom. 6:15–23.
21 Eph. 2:19.
22 Rom. 5:2.
24 Heb. 2:1.
25 Heb. 3:13.
26 1 Pet. 1:13.
27 Rev. 21:3–4.
28 Luke 7:47.
29 Jonathan Edwards. “Resolved. To act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings as others.” Jonathan Edwards, “Resolutions,” http://edwards.yale.edu/archive.
Peter has been the teaching pastor at North Hills Community Church in Taylors, S.C., since the church began in 1992. He and his wife Karen have been married for 25 years and have four children.