Article Oct 12, 2016

Is your church causing the repentant to stumble?

Nineteen years ago, my wife and I began a journey. We both were struggling with our identities—my sexual identity and her identity as a woman and a wife. Our marriage had been shattered, and both of us, in unique and personal ways, had experienced a profound and fresh connection with our Savior.  

We knew we needed the local church, but we were not excited about finding one. On one hand, we desperately wanted a place where we could be honest and real about our struggles. On the other hand, most churches that seemed more open to our struggles also seemed vague and nebulous about homosexuality and sexual sin. In some ways, I felt safe in those churches as I imagined they would not reject me for my struggle. But in greater ways, I was leery of those churches. I knew I was vulnerable, and their nuanced language and unclear answers made me fear that their pastors might, in some way, encourage me to accept the very thing that God was calling me to lay down at the cross.  

We ended up back at a Baptist church, where we kept our struggles a secret but where we received good, solid teaching. God shored up our spiritual foundation in that place, and it was instrumental in our healing. Joyfully, we later found a church that figured out how to meld authenticity with a deep commitment to God’s Word. Our healing was exponential in that place!

Today, many mainline denominations are no longer vague on sexuality at all and have moved to a place of fully and clearly affirming homosexual identity and expression. In addition to these historically more liberal churches, conservative evangelical churches, seemingly motivated by both the cultural wave of pro-gay sentiment and a genuine desire to share the gospel in the gay community, have made great strides in crafting a message for the gay community that is designed to be less-offensive, less argumentative and more inclusive. I appreciate those efforts and laud any message that opens the gospel to all people, regardless of their issues.  

Yet, I fear that churches which have chosen to speak more kindly and nuanced on issues like homosexuality and sexual sin, or which have chosen to say nothing for fear of saying too much, might be trying to reach one disconnected group outside the church at the cost of neglecting an important group within the church. In our desire to be more welcoming to and accepting of the gay community, have we shut our doors to the community of the conflicted and repentant?

Are we as safe for repentant gay men and women as we are for the unrepentant?

Homosexual expression may not be a sin worse than any other sin, but it is unique as the only sinful behavior that carries with it an identity that is protected, celebrated and endorsed on an increasingly broad scale. When someone chooses to walk away from homosexuality, based on the work of the Spirit in their hearts to both convict them of their sin and to give them hope for something more, they are not just walking away from behavior. They are walking away from community and identity and dreams and hopes and, in many ways, safety.  

I remember well the pull, in the early days, back to my gay community. It was not so much lust that compelled me, but a sense of being OK and being accepted and loved based on my homosexuality. Had my church in any way endorsed as OK what I had left behind, I’m not sure I would have stayed the course. And had I not stayed the course, I would not have discovered the amazing life God had for me as I lived out my repentance and grew into all that he made me to be and all that he had for me within his perfect boundaries for sexuality.

Both the lost world and the saved world need a clear word on the nature of sin and the way that nature reveals itself in our behavior.

Diminishing or skimming over parts of God’s Word, so as not to offend, helps no one. As Jeremiah condemned false prophets of his day, our lack of clarity may well be offering people peace where, in fact, there is no peace. The church may be leading the very people Jesus came to save to a dangerous place. It is dangerous not only because it may impact someone’s salvation, but also because it impacts all of what we are promised in Jesus—joy, peace, abundance, fulfillment, purpose and so much more.

If we are afraid to speak clearly about what we believe, then perhaps we don’t really believe it. There was no nuance in the proclamations of the Old Testament prophets. And Jesus and the New Testament writers never minced words—on sin or on love. The church need not fear the hard words about sin and must not ignore the hard words of love. Sin destroys, and if we really believe that, we won’t fear calling sin out.  Love restores, and if we really believe that, we will extend it, in the context of truth, to the repentant and the unrepentant alike.

The early days of repentance, no matter the sin, can be the most precarious.

Satan will work to convince repentant sinners that repentance was not necessary or that what they have left behind is more valuable than what they have turned toward. Clear, unadulterated, direct confirmation of what God calls each of us to in repentance is vital in the process of repentance and sanctification. God designed the church to stand with repentant sinners—encouraging them, teaching them, challenging them, supporting them and loving them as they go through the withdrawals that always accompany walking away from the mind-altering, numbing nature of sinful behavior. If we ignore the call to repentance because we want to attract the unrepentant, we will have nothing real to offer the unrepentant when they show up. And we will, perhaps inadvertently, minimize the magnitude of the miracle of conviction in those who are moved to repentance.

May we never, as the church, sacrifice the repentant in order to attract the unrepentant.  

There may be few who choose to enter that narrow gate, but heaven celebrates over each one. Far be it from us to cause those precious ones to stumble back into what God has called them to leave behind.