This has gotten complicated, and the Supreme Court ruling just made things worse.
Being a pastor in 2015, a world in which whatever you feel, you are, makes communicating a biblical sexual ethic difficult.
To be honest, it is hard for me. I have strong convictions that the Bible is the Word of God, so I believe the teachings on homosexuality are plain, coherent, straightforward, and line up perfectly with God’s clear design that sexual relationships are for a man and woman who are exclusively husband and wife. Believing God’s Word is not the difficult part. I won’t budge on the inspired truths of the Bible.
The hard part is that I don’t preach to the choir weekly like many of my fellow conservative, evangelical friends. I don’t think I deserve a pat on the back, but I do want to emphasize that it often does not require extreme courage to preach traditional marriage and make calls for the sexually immoral to believe the gospel and repent to a congregation who already agrees—though there are many who “agree” and live an immoral lifestyle behind closed doors.
I have the privilege of pastoring in a liberal college and government town filled with millennials where the perceived reality is plain and simple: unless you fully accept the LGBT lifestyle, you do not accept LGBT people. It is ridiculous and untrue, but that is what the large majority of people think. Devote even five minutes of your sermon to same-sex marriage or the sinfulness of homosexuality, and you will be the guy who doesn’t welcome gay people to church. People will leave your church, and you’ll be labeled as the homophobic, anti-gay person who doesn’t understand the lives of those with same sex attraction.
It is the new litmus test for the local church. To speak against homosexual activity is to hate someone’s friend, family member or the individual who identifies as gay. That is not where our culture is headed; it is where our culture currently sits. Out of the fear of the Lord and love for my neighbor, I believe I must preach on sexual ethics, and I will continue to do so in a manner that I hope is convictional and kind. Sometimes I wish I could duck the issue, and as a result be much more liked by people, but that is a temptation I continue to overcome by God’s grace.
So what would be the alternative to “going there” on speaking about homosexuality? Is it mainline Protestant liberalism, which simply thinks the Bible is an outdated book written by men? Hardly. That exists, of course, but those churches are in hospice or have already had the funeral.
The actual alternative is rarely discussed and is already happening. It is alive and well in my city and many others. Churches will pop up in your city that are young, hip, social justice-conscious, preach engaging messages, and have quality music. They aren’t liberal by the classic standards. If asked, the staff or leadership of these churches would most likely acknowledge a biblical understanding of marriage and sexual ethics, but these churches are gaining new members by transfer growth from other churches—people who left their previous church because they have gay friends who “wouldn’t feel welcomed.”
The little secret is that these folks aren’t bringing their gay friends to these churches, either; they just believe that God doesn’t have a problem with the lifestyle of people who are so nice and sincere. If He does, it isn’t really a big deal because there are starving children in Africa, and that is more important.
The pragmatic practices of these churches have to stop at silence on homosexuality because it will offend. Instead, they will sound really spiritual and passionate about the lost by claiming they just want to “talk about Jesus.” I wonder if they care that Jesus defined marriage as between a man and a woman by quoting from Genesis (a book he believed was true), or that Paul wrote “sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, or anyone practicing homosexuality” will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9). This Jesus they want to focus on doesn’t care about the sinful practices of people that will keep them from eternal life unless they repent.
In the meantime, many Bible-preaching churches that preach on sexual sin get defensive about the reality that people will leave a church over the issue of homosexuality, but people are and will continue to walk out the doors. They aren’t leaving by flocking to mainline Protestant churches; they are showing up at “evangelical” churches that won’t touch the gay issue unless they are apologizing for Christians who have treated gay people poorly.
These churches have cowards in leadership, but their light-hearted “authenticity” and “being real” makes them loved. They say nothing viewed as controversial by our culture and critique the “institutional” Church to the pleasing of millennials in their seats. Not offending LGBT people has almost become an obsession by these pastors and church members.
We are ministering in a new day, and it is going to take courage to stand up to the cultural issue of our time. While liberal churches mock or revise the Bible on the issue of homosexuality, many evangelical churches who won’t touch it simply ignore the Scriptures and believe they are being compassionate to the LGBT community by their choice to not preach what God has made clear.
In this new day, the Church actively desiring to be biblically faithful in the love of God and neighbor must learn to do so in a way that doesn’t make the LGBT individual feel like a freak, less of a person, or unloved. This is not an easy endeavor because simply holding to biblical beliefs makes a church fail the culture’s test of what is qualified as loving.
So how do we even begin?
1. It isn’t the gay person that is against your church for preaching on homosexuality.
Of course a LGBT individual doesn’t like it, but they aren’t shocked. Often they know what the Bible says about their lifestyle. The people who are furious at the Church are usually disgruntled millennials who believe they are experts on the Church, read the latest bloggers, and go to churches that talk about the need for the “Church to be the Church” (which usually means do more social justice), as if that hasn’t been happening for 2,000 years.
In other words, consider the source. These people will have left five other churches before yours, and they are only 23 years old! They also have very few gay friends, while acting like they have 75 and are somehow specialists on all LGBT feelings.
2. Build relationships with gay people.
I get really frustrated when people suggest I am anti-gay because of my belief in marriage. I work hard at my relationships with LGBT friends and could name you seven right this second who I spend time with regularly. My gay friends get upset with me from time to time if I happen to be preaching on sexual immorality or marriage, stop attending our church for a few months here and there, but would never deny that I care about them as friends.
3. If you’re going to preach on sexual immorality, quit proving people right by singling out LGBT folks and ignoring the rest.
Do you have the guts to preach on divorce? Will you say “no” to officiating a wedding where you believe the bride was previously divorced for unbiblical reasons? Will you confront the moral tragedy of pornography from the pulpit? Well, you better cool down on homosexuality because you might actually be against gay people.
4. Realize that the arguments are all emotional, and that is a no-win situation.
The reason why many millennial Christians are silent or on the fence about homosexuality being sinful is usually one simple, yet complicated reason: they know a gay person.
You could give every verse, Greek translation, and Matt Chandler sermon on the topic, and it wouldn’t matter. This is the cultural reality we live in, and we have to realize that they really are asking, “Why would God make someone gay and say it is wrong?” Of course, an easy explanation of the effects of Genesis 3 explains that quickly, but they don’t care. People who preach to the choir don’t understand this, but it is the most complicated part of the discussion. I don’t have a solution here, you just need to know this is the real world, non-evangelical subculture life.
5. You must help people see that the second greatest commandment never trumps the first.
“And one of them, an expert in the law, asked a question to test Him: “Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest? ” He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands” (Matt. 22:35-40).
Jesus said to love God. That was the first and greatest commandment. When one justifies homosexuality or is simply silent on the matter and claims it is out of love of neighbor, he or she violates the first commandment by not loving God. Refusing to take God at His word is not loving God. Love of God should fuel love of our neighbor, and if we love God, we will obey His commandments, not ignore or revise them.
6. Remember that holiness is the goal, not heterosexuality.
Our goal is not to make someone straight. We don’t have that power. Our goal is the gospel. We want our neighbors to believe the good news of Jesus Christ, repent of their sins, and grow in holiness by living lives that honor God. We are about seeing lives changed by God, not winning arguments or getting people to be on a “side.” I believe Paul wasn’t joking when he said the sexually immoral will not inherit the kingdom of God. My prayer is that the reality for all LGBT persons will be what Paul said after those uncompromising and direct words:
“And some of you used to be 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).
Cultural engagement on this issue is not easy. However, the words of the Lord are clear: we must love God and love our neighbor. Loving neighbors begins by wanting them to be washed in the name of Jesus Christ, and that is the message of love we must convey.