Less than 40 miles from the town I grew up in lies South Pass City, a true old west ghost town. It has been fixed up today for tourists to visit but, when I was a kid, only the hotel, the bank and the school had been restored. You could still shut yourself in one of the cells of the jail, try to read the scratchings on the wall left by long ago prisoners, or take your bag lunch into the saloon and eat at one of the old tables where, if you had brought a marble along, you could play with an abandoned roulette wheel.
It was a place where, because of the lack of people, you could walk down the street and still feel a sense of the ghost of the old west. My heroes in elementary school were the figures of Western history; Though many of my favorites, the early fur trappers, predated South Pass City and Wyoming settlement, you could still get a sense of the kind of towns they must have known elsewhere and the shadows of those who followed in their tracks and built towns like this one. You could almost imagine yourself back in the town at its height on a moment when every one still lived there – they all just happened to be inside, readying for dinner in the hotel or brawling in the saloon. Any moment a miner might walk into town from his claim or a fight might explode into the street from the saloon doors.
South Pass City had been born in a gold boom in the late 1860's. During its short heyday it grew to a population of 2000. It even had a blip of glory on the national stage for it was the home of Esther Morris who encouraged saloon owner William Bright, a representative to the Wyoming Constitutional Convention, to include woman's suffrage in the constitution, making Wyoming the first territory in the nation to give women the right to vote. She was also the nation's first female justice of the peace. During her tenure, it is said, that she at least once put her own husband in jail for public drunkenness.
Yet, by the end of the 1870's South Pass City was already dying. The gold had played out and by the middle of the 20th century the town was empty. The economic foundation on which the town had been built failed. It could not sustain even a small community. All that remained were empty building to excite the curiosity of future school children about the way their ancestors might have lived.
Christ tells a similar story about a house built on sand which, when the flood came, fell with a great crash. He uses it, of course, to illustrate what happens when we build our lives on the wrong foundation. I think, however, it can also apply to a congregation or a ministry. Build a house without a foundation and it will fall apart. Build a city without an economic base and it will fade away. Build a life on the wrong foundations and it will collapse. Build a ministry on the wrong foundation, that ministry, instead of giving life, will simply stumble and fail.
So what is the foundation upon which we should build our lives and ministries?
When we look at Christ's illustration, we find it falls within the portion of Matthew called “The Sermon on the Mount.” I find it interesting, and not a little distressing, how comfortable we make this particular sermon of Christ's. Dr Schuller took the first few verses and declared them “the Be Happy Attitudes,” and little old ladies of years gone by made them into embroidery samplers to decorate living rooms as if they were comforting little sayings meant to make us feel at home. Yet, when you read the beatitudes, comfort and happiness form no part of them. They promise blessings, yes, but within, and sometimes through, heartache, pain and loss. We teach our children the “Golden Rule,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” like a piece of good advice they ought to follow to be a nice person. I have been in very unfortunate theological discussions in which all theology was reduced to “Love the Lord with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself” as if Christ was born, lived suffered and died, merely for the opportunity to drop by this earth and utter that sentence. And we conclude that surely Christ was exaggerating, in this sermon. He could not have meant it could he?, when He advised cutting off a hand or plucking out an eye that causes one to sin.
The Sermon on the Mount is neither comforting nor comfortable. It is not a list of bits of good advice to make life or society better. It is harsh. It is the Law in its purest and cruelest and most holy form. It is the sun of the Law shining into a dark world that can not bear to look at it, much less begin to keep it. It is, in Lutheran terms, the second use of the Law par excellence. It reveals and condemns the sinful nature of man for which Christ came to die. It is the verbal expression of the impossibility of sinful man to keep the Law and the just condemnation from God which will, three years later, will be demonstrated visually and fatally upon a cross on another hill outside Jerusalem. Cut off our hand? Can Jesus be serious? Indeed He is. He is not exaggerating. He is quite serious. The point is we can not do it and even if we did it would solve nothing. That we are unable to do as Christ demands, that we simply can not obey, is the whole purpose of the Sermon on the Mount.
The illustration of the house is no different than the rest of the Sermon. Christ is quite clear. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” Doing, obeying what Christ has said in this wildly extreme and utterly impossible sermon is the foundation Christ proclaims at the end. In other words, our house, our lives will fall! We have no choice for we are unable to build on that foundation. As sinful humans we have only sand upon which to build. We are utterly doomed.
Under the Law that is....
Christ leaves the Mountain and immediately proceeds to associate with and help the most apparent and open of lawbreakers and outcasts. He heals a leper and a centurion's servant. He calls a tax collector as a follower and eats at his house. He heals two demoniac gentiles and a woman who had a flow of blood for many years.
Lets be clear here before proceeding. We hear a great deal today about “doing the Gospel.” By that, the speaker usually means to be loving as Christ is loving. Just as we can not keep the sermon on the mount because we are sinful, neither can we, as mere humans, “do the Gospel.” Yes, we should be nice and we should be loving and we should help whomever and however we can. But, while that flows from the Gospel, it is NOT the same as proclaiming the Gospel. Just as Christ was not giving a list of Be Happy Attitudes in the sermon, so also He is not demonstrating the totality of ministry in the next few chapters. We can not “do the Gospel.”
Christ, on the other hand, is God in human form. He, therefore, can do the Gospel just as He, and no one else, can keep the Law. When He heals a leper, casts out demons or eats with tax collectors, yes, this is the Gospel. This is God in mercy and forgiveness, entering into the company of sinners, in mercy overlooking their sin, and rejoicing in their presence. This is pure Gospel. It is heaven on earth. It is sacramental and a means of grace. God is with man. He is Emmanuel. And He is here because He will pay the price for sin.
Neither the doing of the Law nor the “doing of the Gospel” can form the foundation of ministry. We can not keep the Law and we can not be Emmanuel. But when the two are taken together, the sermon and the actions of Christ following it, including the cross, there we have ministry. It is our task to proclaim the Law which we can not keep and proclaim the cross, the Gospel of what Christ has done. A ministry which fails to do this is a ministry built on sand.
Unfortunately, such a foundation has never really been laid when it comes to ministry to LGBT people. The conservative side has laid part of the foundation, the Law. But alone the Law is not an adequate base to support true ministry. The liberal side has tried to lay the Gospel. But without the Law, the Gospel degenerates into niceness and points more to us than to Christ. Neither, by itself, forms a foundation upon which we can built.
That being said, because I am writing to conservative pastors who already have laid the Law, I am going to deal with only the part of the foundation yet to be poured down, the Gospel. Specifically, the manner in which the Gospel can and does form identity in Christ. For this reason you may, in fact, you will, find what I write inadequate. My focus is quite narrow and not because I think other aspects of ministry to LGBT people are bad or wrong but because they have already been adequately dealt with and it is my intention only to deal with a fundamental flaw that still needs fixed.
So let me repeat, it is my intention to ONLY deal with the Gospel and how it forms identity.
Before moving on to that central purpose, however, I do actually want to do a quick run through of various aspects and approaches in ministry to LGBT people. I do this only partly to demonstrate they are inadequate foundations. More importantly, though they are not foundational, they do form, if you will, the walls of the house. A house is not a house if it is only a foundation. The walls are as necessary as the base. The same is true of ministry. The foundation alone does not form ministry. And many of these approaches are good and necessary in helping LGBT Christians in our congregations. So mostly, I am doing a quick inventory of these approaches to ministry so that you, as a pastor, may know where to find them and how they may be useful as you speak about LGBT members and their families and issues. As I do so, I am also going to try and point out why they are necessary parts of ministry as well as where their weaknesses make them inadequate as foundations for ministry.
Back in 2009, Andrew Marin published the book “Love is an Orientation.” Since then he has formed the Marin Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting communication between LGBT people and the Church. Of all the aspects of ministry, this is the one, I suspect, most pastors will have trouble understanding and accepting as an important part of ministry to LGBT people as Marin and his foundation refuse to take any stand or make any public statement regarding issues such as gay marriage. He feels that to make any statement one way or another would hinder his goal of merely promoting communication. And I think he is right.
The Church, of course, can not fully follow that path. It is the purpose of the Marin Foundation to facilitate communication. But the Church is not merely about easing communication between groups. And, in fact, bridge building alone will often backfire when tried as the full approach to ministry. For instance, Father James Martin wrote a book, “Building a Bridge - How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity.” Unlike Andrew Marin, however, Father Martin had a goal beyond mere communication. His stated goal was to see LGBT people enjoy full participation in the Church. The problem is that he never explained what that meant, with the result that both sides see his intentions as suspect. Christians who review his book tend to think he is trying to change the historic doctrines on sex and marriage. Meanwhile, I have seen LGBT reactions to his writing that fear he is simply trying to manipulate them back to a conservative view of sex and marriage as between a man and woman only. Similarly, we see the same mistake made in congregations when LGBT people begin attending a church that is essentially silent on such issues, that seems welcoming and friendly, until the LGBT individual seeks to be more active in the Church. At that point they may find they are limited in what they are allowed do and are badly hurt. The dishonesty and silence of the congregation until it is too late does more harm than good. For instance, in the book “Two Words: Why Hearing, 'I'm Gay' Changed My Straight Christian Life” Emily Timbol recounts the experience of two friends who were treated this way and how it affected not only them but her and her family. So, no, we can not merely communicate. And Bridge Building alone is not an adequate approach to ministry.
Bridge building should, however, play a much larger part in ministry than I have seen in most conservative Christian circles. Keep in mind WHO you are building a bridge with. In all likelihood you will seldom or never deal with the so called “gay community.” But you WILL have teens in your congregation who are facing homosexuality and transgenderism. And they WILL take whatever you say to and about the “gay community” as directed at them. This is one of the primary reasons I insist on calling myself “gay,” to remind pastors there are members within their congregation, usually fairly young, who are discovering that their attractions and feelings are not standard. Even if they do not refer to themselves as “Gay” or “Transgender,” etc, they are well aware that their peers and society around them use those terms for what they are experiencing. When they hear you speaking about “gay” or “LGBT” people, they can't read your mind and at least wonder if you are using the terms in the same way the culture does, as someone whose attractions are not the norm. This is one of the reasons why whining the old canard “your identity should be in Christ, not your sin” simply does not work. It is not about how they identify themselves. It is how they suspect YOU identify them that gives your words such power to sting and causes so much damage. So what you say about LGBT people you are saying about and directly to these kids. How you speak and whether you build that bridge or not may well make the difference whether they come and talk with you in high school or whether you find out they were gay when their parents come to you for counsel in later years about their adult child who has “come out” and already left the church. How you speak about homosexuality and transgenderism may very well determine whether you get a chance to minister to these kids or not.
One area where pastors absolutely need to be demonstrating and encouraging bridge building is in their work with parents of LGBT kids. I know that when parents first learn their child is gay or lesbian or transgender, the parents' initial response is panic. And parents want very much to make their kid straight. The hard and fast reality is that parents HAVE NO POWER at all to make that happen. I am not saying parents should be neutral on issues like sexual morality. But LGBT kids of Christian parents are already very aware of their parents' views on such things and no amount of pleading, threatening, therapy or praying is going to make the kid's orientation change. Period. All the parent will accomplish is to drive a wedge in the relationship. Yes, a grown child may agree not to bring his or her partner to the parents' house for holidays. But all that will do is shorten the visits and make the child less trusting of Mom and Dad. It will in no way influence the child to choose celibacy over affection. It is far more important, therefore, for the parents to maintain a close relationship with their kid. And, yes, that will mean such things as welcoming a kid's LGBT partner into the home for special occasions and visits, just as a parent would welcome the live-in partner of one of their straight kids. And yes, that means, regardless of the parents' views, that they will need to treat the legal marriage of one of their gay kids in the same way they treat the marriage of one of their straight kids, with the same respect. An excellent book, written by a conservative theological professor and his gay son, is “Space at the Table” by Brad and Drew Harper. One thing to really pay attention to in the book is how hard the boy tried to become straight, how much he wanted to please his parents and God from the time he was 11 or 12 years old and how his failed efforts to do so were part of what drove him away from faith. In the end, pastors need to be telling their members that it is OK to just love LGBT friends and family. They are not letting God down by loving their loved ones.
Another, equally important area in which pastors need to consider many of the techniques of bridge building is in conversation about LGBT people. Pastors make all kinds of comments meant to convey the Church's teaching on sex in what, I am sure, they believe to be a kind and compassionate manner but which, really, only convey to same sex attracted and other sexual minorities that the pastor actually regards them as less human or more sinful than others. Often this is done simply in the language that is chosen to describe LGBT people in contrast to straight people.
For example, a few months ago I heard a pastor remark that gay people are demanding to have sex with whomever they want to have sex with. I have often heard other pastors make similar comments. But wait a minute, isn't the demand to have sex with whomever you want one of the most common, if not the most common, motivators of the human race? Have not straight people sought to have sex with whomever they wanted since Lamech first married 2 wives? Was it not desiring to have sex with Rachel that made Jacob work for 14 years and marry two sisters, and created a disaster of a home life? Was it not David's desire to have sex with Bathsheba that led him to eventual murder? Was it not Paris' lust for Helen that started the Trojan war? Isn't the desire to have sex with whom you want the fodder for the majority of Shakespeare's comedies and the foundation of most of his tragedies? Are not nearly all of our songs, literature and movies about falling in love, falling out of love, losing love or wanting love? How are gay people different than straight people in this? Why then do pastors call it “falling in love” when straight people do it and “demanding sex” or “lust” when LGBT people feel the same thing? Further, some years ago I read the comments of a gay man who pointed out that prior to the AIDS crisis there were few or no consequences to gay sex. There was no such thing as gay marriage so there were no expectations of long term commitment. There was no chance of pregnancy. And any diseases that were communicable at the time could be handled with some antibiotics. As he pointed out, if straight men could have sex with lots of women with so few consequences, they would act just like gay men acted. Promiscuity was not such a large part of the gay culture because gay people are different than straight but because they are the same. The gay men were not promiscuous because they were gay but because they were guys. And he is right. And the sad fact is that distinguishing between gay and straight by using negative or pejorative language for one and positive language for the other reveals the speaker's bias that gay sins are somehow worse than straight ones, that gay people are worse sinners than straight. When combined with a lack of Gospel, this puts LGBT people as outside the Church and outside God's love.
I could, of course go on with more examples but the point is that when our young people and families of LGBT people hear pastors make comments like these, comments that are inaccurate and that separate between gay sins and straight sins, or that trivialize the experience of their friends and loved ones, they lose trust in the pastor and the Church. They become friends with a gay person or a family member comes out and they realize this loved one is not the sex demanding activist their pastor portrayed but simply a person who fell in love and felt exactly like themselves but whose attractions were to their own sex. They look at the way the Church has treated their friends, whom they love, and realize that the damage is at least as severe, if not more so, as that done by LGBT activists to Christians. They find out that their friend did not just “wake up one morning and decided to be the opposite gender or to be attracted to their own sex. And they begin to realize their pastor was not accurate, perhaps was even dishonest. They see Christians acting hypocritically and pointing fingers at others for behaving like Christians have also behaved. They become angry at the lack of compassion shown by Christians. And they begin to doubt other things the pastor says as well. Their trust is shattered. In the end, incautious, unfair and inaccurate language does far more harm to Christians than it benefits any political efforts. Once again, I would recommend the book “Two Words: Why Hearing, 'I'm Gay' Change My Straight Christian Life” by Emily Timbol. I would also add a recommendation for “The Cross in the Closet” by Tim Kurek. In both instances these young people left the Church for a time because of their hurt and anger over how the Church had treated their gay acquaintances – even though both young people had started from a conservative anti-gay point of view themselves.
So, while bridge building can not form the entirety of a pastor's ministry, for the sake of the Church, pastors do need to learn to utilize many of the techniques for talking honestly, accurately and compassionately about and to LGBT people. So, Pastors, please, THINK before you speak and act. Learning the techniques of bridge building is vital even though it can't be the foundation upon which we build.
I take the title for this approach from Preston Sprinkle's book “People to be Loved.” In essence it is doing what I recommend under “Bridge Building.” Dr Sprinkle maintains the Law yet advocates for welcome and real love to be shown to LGBT people. As far as it goes, this is a great approach. His strength is his careful and compassionate consideration of the Law as it applies to sex and marriage. He does not go over board nor resort to oversimplification. He avoids name calling and drawing irrational distinctions between heterosexual sins and homosexual ones. He also does a great job of reminding us of the love Jesus showed to those who were most despised in the society of his day. Let us not forget that, although from a divine perspective Christ died to forgive sins, the human motivations of those who crucified him were the fact that He was a “friend of sinners” and that he rejected the self righteousness of the religious. Are Christians today seen as friends to LGBT people? If not then why not?
Some months ago Lutheran Church Charities sent comfort dogs to visit those affected by the Pulse club shooting where a man had killed many patrons of a gay bar. Sadly the response on a couple of pretty conservative discussions sites I occasionally visit was outrage. Some posters even said that the only comfort we should be offering LGBT people is the comfort of eternal life following repentance. It reminded me of the response Christians often had to the AIDS crisis in the 80s. I recall one so-called Christian radio personality who read the obituaries of young men in his area who died of AIDS and almost rejoiced over their tragedies. His excuse was that God was calling gay people and the nation to repentance. I suppose, it is a natural human desire to believe that those who break God's law will be unhappy while those who keep it will be happier. Christ, however, never says that. In fact, He promises quite the opposite, that those who believe will bear a cross. And even if breaking God's law were to bring unhappiness, one thing Christ does not allow us is to be the agent of that unhappiness. Rather, he says the opposite: “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” I suppose it could be said that most Christians responded to AIDS, the Pulse Club shooting and other such tragedies in “love” in that they did not desire LGBT people to die. And I am sure that those who said the “best way to love LGBT people is to call them to repentance” sincerely do not hate gay and transgender people. But notice that Christ calls for more than a negative, more than “not hating.” He actually calls for us to do good even to those who hate us. Unfortunately, much of the “hate” toward Christians from the LGBT community has been well earned. I know few LGBT people who have left the Church because they hated Christ – most, in fact, admire Him, even those who themselves no longer believe. What drove them out of the Church was the behavior and words of Christians. For this reason, and because of Christ's own command, yes, we need to do things like sending comfort dogs and much more to those who suffer, and perhaps especially to those we have hurt such as LGBT people.
And, once again, don't forget to whom you are ministering. I was in my very early 20s when AIDS hit the news. Even though I was already committed to celibacy, I recall watching the reactions of many Christians and thinking, “is this how I will be treated if I slip up? If I can't maintain my sexual abstinence and contract this disease, will my Church treat me like this?” You are ministering to kids in your congregation whom you do not even know are gay or transgender. And what you say and how you react to LGBT people will be seen by them as how you feel and what you believe about themselves. The good you do to gay people translates into love for your members. And conversely, hate or anger or disdain you show for LGBT people translates into hate and anger toward your members in the minds of those kids.
So keeping in mind that LGBT people are indeed people to be loved is vital to ministry.
The book, however, has two weaknesses.
The first weakness is that Dr Sprinkle sometimes fails to be specific. He advocates welcoming gay people and putting to death homophobia. The question is what do those things mean? I doubt most pastors believe themselves to be homophobic or unwelcoming to LGBT people. Yet pastors and Christians do come across that way to LGBT people and their families. Somewhere there is a disconnect between what is intended and what is conveyed. For this reason I think Christians need more specific guidance on what are they doing that seems homophobic and unwelcoming to others and how can they change that without changing Scriptures or the doctrines drawn from them. To some extent, I think this weakness results from the fact that the book is a recounting of his own studies on the issue more than it is a text book on how to do ministry. Since the publication of this book, Dr Sprinkle has begun an organization called “The Center for Faith, Sexuality and Gender” www.centerforfaith.com. I suspect, as time goes by and more people take part in this effort, we will see more specifics coming out of the efforts he and others contribute and this particular weakness will be corrected.
The second weakness is why I am writing this series papers or whatever it is. The Gospel itself doesn't make much of an appearance in the book. Dr Sprinkle did a somewhat better job of that in his book for teens, “Living in a Gray World” in which he included a chapter targeting the Gospel to LGBT youth. Nevertheless, while being welcoming and friendly to LGBT people is a necessary part of ministry, without the foundation of the Gospel it is not a sustainable ministry. Humans are limited and no amount of kindness, compassion nor acceptance from any human can save anyone. For that we need the Gospel.
By the way, just a side note, most of the book is a discussion of the the Law. There really is only about a chapter and half about loving gay people. Now, since the book is recounting Dr Sprinkle's own exploration of the Law and various arguments for and against the gay affirming interpretations of the Bible, I get that. I think in this case he had to include that much law to accurately reflect why he maintains a view of Scripture that does not permit sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman. But what I found interesting was a comment he made, I believe it was in one of his podcasts, that people come to the conclusion he is affirming of gay sex; based, I assume, on the title of the book and the short amount of space he talks about loving LGBT people. I think this illustrates a major problem in the Church today. A pastor or a Christian who attempts to do anything other than condemn LGBT people does, in fact, run the risk of being seen as being antinomian or approving of “sin.” This has to change. We have to learn how to show love even if it means courageously running the risk of being misunderstood.
Several years ago Dr Wesley Hill wrote the account of his life as a gay, celibate teen and young adult called “Washed and Waiting.” Since then he, Eve Tushnet, Melinda Selmys, Ron Belgau and others have worked on the web site “Spiritual Friendship” (spiritualfriendship.org.) This approach to ministry takes the view that the Church needs to do what it can to meet the needs of those sexual minorities who are part of the Church and attempting to live according to the Church's doctrine by either remaining celibate or by building/strengthening a mixed-orientation marriage (when a gay or lesbian person is married to a straight spouse). Primary among those needs is the need for human relationships and companionship. So offering and building friendship is a focal point of this approach. And I can not say strongly enough that any Church which attempts to minister to gay people without providing true friendship will fail to minister to LGBT people at all.
Nevertheless there are a couple of weaknesses here. The first is that I think they sometimes try to make friendship do more than it can. Sometimes it seems they are advocating committed, celibate friendships as a replacement for marriage. While friendships can provide the human companionship and affection especially necessary for a celibate person who does not have that relationship of marriage, I really believe that marriage and friendship are two very different relationships (even though there are many elements common to both) and one can never truly be a replacement for the other. So I am a little cautious of the extreme to which they sometimes take friendship.
The other weakness is not with the authors of Spiritual Friendship or their writing but lies in the way their concepts are sometimes used by pastors. A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a pastor who felt that the real problem with gay people was that they had not formed strong bonds with others of their own gender (the standard premise of those who advocate Reparative Therapy, a specific kind of orientation change therapy which sees homosexuality as an attempt to repair missing bonds with same sex parents and friends though sexual desires). He said “what the Church really needs to do is to just teach gay people how to make and maintain good friendships.” Now the various authors of Spiritual Friendship are actually pretty good about discussing doctrine, the Law, the Gospel and various aspects of the faith. Even though they are not Lutheran and do not draw the strict Law/Gospel distinction the LCMS does, the Gospel clearly comes through. However, sometimes the way their ideas are used by pastors and religious leaders like the man I spoke to boils this approach down to “LGBT people just need friends to become straight.” Firstly, the evidence that a lack of same sex bonding is at the root of homosexuality is becoming more and more suspect. Secondly, humans are limited and no amount of friendship they can offer will take the place of the Gospel. Friendships will fail, sometimes they will grow more distant, humans make mistakes. Any ministry built on the foundation of friendship will, in the end, be inadequate. So, once again, while friendship is an undeniable requirement for ministry, it can not be the foundation.
One of the most important things you, as a pastor, need to do for the LGBT kids in your congregation is to delineate between sin and temptation. The fact is that being attracted to or tempted toward sex is not the same as sinning. Christ essentially makes that distinction in Matthew 5:27-28. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart." The ESV is correct when it translates the verse "with lustful intent." The construction of the Greek here is fairly common in the synoptic Gospels and always means an action carried out with a purpose in mind. Christ does not condemn involuntary attraction. But the moment that attraction becomes intentional, it becomes sin. James also makes the distinction between temptation and sin, "But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death." (James 1:14-15 ESV). Notice he does not call the initial desire sin but says that it produces sin. This distinction is important because while Christ bore our sins, He Himself did not sin. But He did experience temptation. And this experience of temptation is comforting to us. The author of Hebrews says, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." To label a temptation as sin is to separate the person from the comfort found in Christ's own temptation. It is to refuse to the person the throne of grace, of knowing that Christ was tempted for them. It is true that sin has corrupted our very nature. But to apply the Law to such a depth that a person is sinning from the moment of temptation is to take the Law too far and often creates guilt and shame so deep and central to the person's being that it builds a barrier to the Gospel and nulifys grace itself. In fact, for many LGBT people, it drives the Law so deep that the message of forgiveness, instead of communicating hope, conveys that God wants to erase the person, that the love of God means utterly destroying the person. What is offered is not life but annihilliation.
Further, failing to divide between temptation and sin also separates the person from the Body of Christ. If your temptation is normal and designed by God but my temptation is sin then you and I are different. How, therefore, can I know that the salvation God offers you is also offered to me? Failure to make that distinction creates subsets of sinners withing the Body of Christ whose experience of temptation is so separated from that of all other Christians that it creates doubt that the same salvation can apply to all equally.
Perhaps what I am trying to say would be easier if we looked at a topic that would have less modern political implications. I work with people with various disabilities. One particular disability, Prader-Willi syndrome, results in an absence of normal hunger and satiety cues. They never feel full and feel hungry all the time. A child with Prader-Willi is in danger of literally eating himself to death and is certainly subject to dangerous obesity. I would hope any pastor with such a child in the congregation would not spend any time condemning the child for a desire they don't want and can't help. I would suspect such children and their families already feel awful and miserable about the struggle to make it through the day. To continually emphasize that in merely experiencing a constant sense of hunger the child is sinner would be worse than pointless. To add condemnation, especially without grace and the Gospel, would be an abomination. Would people complain if such a child or their family formed or joined a support group with others who have had the same experience? Would you claim that that person was "identifying themselves by their sin"? I would hope churches, instead, would do what they could to offer support and help to such a child and his or her family. It would be correct to say the condition results from the corruption of the body caused by original sin. It would also be correct to say that the desire is toward something sinful; that is true of all temptation. It would be wrong, I think, to say such a child is sinning by experiencing a constant hunger they do not want and can not help. That child needs to know that, regardless of his or her particular condition, he or she is loved, wanted and a part of the family of God.
So what I am saying is that sin and temptation need presented in such a way as to let the LGBT kids, who experience a desire they can not help and does not want, know that in experiencing temptation they are the same as everyone else rather than different, and are part of the Body of Christ rather than outsiders This can not be done when temptation is condemned as sin, especially when grace, mercy and compassion are absent.
At the same time, however, the distinction between temptation and sin can not form the entirety of ministry. Too often, I have told pastors that I am same sex attracted only to have them ask, "but you're celibate, right? Well you are different." Many times that has been the sum total of the ministry offered. But if that is all the ministry that is given, what it amounts to is works righteousness. It forces the LGBT person into a position where their hope of God's love and mercy depends, not on the cross, but on their own faithfulness and obedience. The danger then is that when they do take that step beyond temptation and sin through intentional desire (which all of us will do many times in our lives) they may very well lose all hope of God's love and salvation. Doing no more than making the distinction destroys faith and creates despairing sinners every bit as much as failing to make the distinction to begin with.
So the pastor must preach temptation as temptation and sin as sin, but can not limit his ministry by avoiding the application of the Gospel to both temptation and Sin.
I love the Law. It is truly a work of art from the hand of the Creator. I have never understood why Christians sometimes see the Law as an enemy or as negative. Even the secular laws God gave Israel in the first books of the Bible reflect a beautiful balance between the perfect and unyielding Law as proclaimed in the sermon on the mount and the practical everyday lives and needs of a newborn nation and its people. Within the practical limits imposed by the falleness of the human nature these laws showed compassion and respect for individual human beings, especially for those most like to be abused and exploited by others, the weak and the marginalized. The eternal moral Law as proclaimed by Christ in the sermon on the mount is glorious in its perfection and vision of how God meant for mankind to live. Moreover, this Law is contained in the same book which shows a loving savior willing to die for mankind, willing to be crucified for loving the least lovable. It is the same book which pictures a God who created, knows and delights in every aspect of our universe. The Law is an amazing gift from God.
For this reason, when there are some things that I don't understand, when there are aspects of the Law that demand from me something that is uncomfortable or unpleasant, faith kicks in and I trust that God has a reason for what He asks.
I don't understand why God says I can not form a loving, sexual relationship with another guy. But there are 5 passages that clearly say men should not have sex with men. I do not include either Genesis 19 or Jude 1:7 because there were so many things going wrong in Sodom that you can't just pick out homosexuality and say “this is why Sodom was destroyed.” The theological arguments that try to make homosexuality the central sin of Sodom are just plain weak. Yet there do remain 5 clear passages: Leviticus 18 and 20, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1. I am not going to recount here the various arguments about the interpretation of these passages. Preston Sprinkle did an excellent job in his book “People to be loved” and there is no need to reinvent the wheel. His work is really good, especially because he did not set out to prove one interpretation over another but was willing to accept whatever interpretation proper methods revealed. So he is recounting his own questions and process of working through these passages and the result is a reasonable, logical and well thought out interpretation. In any case, he ends in the same place I do. These 5 passages do forbid sex between two men. There is nothing wrong with holding to the Bible and maintaining a stand that sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman is simply not in line with Scripture. And frankly, although they disagree with the conclusion, most LGBT people are willing to accept the fact that many Christians hold to that view as long as Christians don't go beyond the simple Law of Scripture.
Unfortunately, Christians are not really known for restraint and for just sticking with Scripture. Especially in the current debates over homosexuality and same sex marriage, the biggest mistake Christians make is trying to strengthen God's laws with human efforts and input.
One of the primary ways this happens is when Christians attempt to provide logical foundations and explanations for the the Law. Take, for instance, the natural law arguments. I think the reasoning behind these arguments is that, since many people no longer accept the Bible as the Word of God or truth, we must provide a different foundation for the laws God gives in Scripture. Christians read Roman 1 and see Paul speaking of natural knowledge of God being made plane in creation. “Aha,” Christians say, “if people will not accept the Bible then we can appeal to the natural revelation of God in the natural order and world around us.” What is missed here is that Paul's answer to this lost natural knowledge of God is not winning people over by pointing to creation but, rather, by the proclamation of Christ and the Gospel. Appealing to natural law simply does not work and, sadly, weakens the Law profoundly.
Firstly, natural law is usually based on a theological and philosophical framework that is not shared with the culture, or at least with the people it is most directly aimed at. I would bet that you have heard the LGBT community argue that, because same sex desires occur naturally, homosexuality can not be bad. It is a natural thing. And I would also bet that argument had exactly zero appeal for you. It did not win you over because you do not share the theological and philosophical premises of the speaker. In the Christian worldview, mankind is born sinful and the world is inherently corrupt. Therefore, just because a desire is present naturally or from birth does not give it legitimacy. In the same way, natural law arguments from the church also require a certain theological point of view to make sense. Talking about “the purpose of sex” makes zero sense to a culture that does not believe in God or that believes in random evolution. So, rather then being enlightened by natural law arguments, the response most of those outside a certain theological framework respond to these natural law arguments is ”huh?”
Secondly, most natural law arguments set up a significant moral or emotional distinction between heterosexual sins and homosexual sins. The most blatant and bizarre form of this comes when I hear pastors argue that “at least divorce, adultery and shacking up are 'natural'.” We can see this same attitude in a less blatant form when pastors essentially ignore divorce yet are vocal against gay marriage. (I am not saying we need to be harsh about divorce – but being silent is not good either) Or when the Gospel is applied to sins like adultery and sex outside of marriage but is virtually absent when homosexuality is discussed. A young person today hearing the natural law arguments against gay marriage; that it redefines marriage and is unfair to children who will not be raised by a mother and a father, need only look at their own family or at their friends and see a culture in which divorce is prevalent, in which many children grow up in single parent homes, with a series of step parents, or shuffled between mom and dad on a periodic basis, to realize that marriage has already been redefined and kids are already growing up without mom and dad. Logically, they wonder, how much worse can it be for two men or two women to form a family? In fact, young adults wonder, wouldn't it be better for a child to at least have two loving parents who are going to stay together, even if they are of the same sex? Combine this with a lack of Gospel and Christians certainly do appear to be homophobic. In the end, these kinds of arguments come across merely as the speaker being disgusted by homosexuality and LGBT people rather than rational arguments against gay sex.
Finally, natural law arguments tend to weaken the Law because too often Christian try make the law do more than it can. I see this I the argument that biblical marriage will make our nation stronger and in the false promises that come, especially, from groups like “Restored Hope Network” that promise orientation change to those who are faithful and committed. Neither of these ideas are expressed in the Bible. Yet they then to pop up in one way or another in natural law arguments. Partly, I believe that this is an offshoot of the triumphalist view of the Church present in much of western Christianity. Somehow faith will help you organize your finances (even though Christ Himself once recommended giving all ones possessions away) and strengthen your marriage and family (even though Christ said faith would turn father against son and son against father). Christian principles are supposed to help you lose weight, overcome depression and, if not cure cancer, at least help you breeze through the chemotherapy without distress. Partly this view is also a logical result of natural law. If, indeed, homosexuality is not natural and heterosexual is, why then it only stands to reason that overcoming homosexual desires and cultivating heterosexual ones will lead to a healthier and happier life. But, Christ Himself does not promise anything on this earth but a cross. There is no promise anywhere in the Bible of wealth or health or straightness – either for the individual or for a nation. It just does not exist. There is no promise that life will be better just because we believe. In fact, for many early believers, life became significantly harder and shorter because of their faith. All kids today need to do is to look around them to realize that promises that God will “fix” a person's sexuality just don't work. The doubt created when young people see such a disconnect between what the Church promises and what is actually delivered can easily extend beyond questions of sexuality and cause them to doubt Christianity itself.
Overall, attempting natural law arguments mostly conveys to people that Christians interpret the passages of the Bible the way they do because they are repulsed by gay people. Dropping natural law arguments allows us to say, “I don't know why God says this but here is the process I used in my interpretation and the steps I went through that led to the conclusion that God does indeed forbid sex between two people of the same sex.” It allows the Bible to be the foundation which forms our moral decisions rather than making some kind of “ick factor” against homosexuality an influence toward our reading of Scripture.
And, perhaps these are the reasons why I have never met nor heard of one single person being persuaded toward a biblical view of sex by natural law. It just doesn't happen. Natural law does not work and simply weakens the proclamation of the Law. On the other hand I know of many who came to faith in Christ, then looked closely at Scripture and drew the conclusion that God's law forbid same sex intercourse, and were willing to go to extraordinary lengths and pay a heavy price in order to be obedient.
Yes, the Law as given by Scripture is a glorious thing and is foundational to ministry. But let's not weaken the very foundation upon which we built by accepting human efforts in the place of the divine, human arguments in the place of simple scriptural revelation.
When it comes to the Law, keep it simple and keep it biblical. Avoid human elaborations. They only weaken the foundation, not strengthen it.
So that is a list of some of the methods and tools that have been used to try and build ministry to LGBT people. But let's get back to that foundation of Law and Gospel. Yes, at least in the more conservative branches of Christianity, the Law has been laid. But the Gospel is still missing.
Some years ago my home church grew to the size where they had to make a decision, go to two services or build a larger sanctuary. They did not want to lose the cohesiveness of the congregation by splitting it into two worship services. Nor did they wand to lose the feel of the old sanctuary, much of which had been constructed by the people of the congregation years ago. So they hired an architect who designed a larger sanctuary using many elements of the old one. The altar, pulpit, lectern and baptismal font were all incorporated into the new design. But the old cross was too small. So a new one was purchased and the old on was left on the wall in the old sanctuary which became the fellowship hall. During Bible studies held in the hall, however, people began to complain that the Television screen, often used during Bible study, obscured the view of the old cross. So the trustees mounted a brand new large screen TV at an angle on the wall away from the cross. The TV can be seen when necessary. But the old beloved cross is still clearly visible at all times.
It has often been said that the 20th Century attempted to created a Christianity without Christ, without the cross. I agree. What I find fascinating, however, is that this was actually done in two ways, not one.
On the “liberal” side Churches seem to have lost the Gospel through the loss of the Law. In discussion with some pastors of these churches, both online and in person, I find they will often admit people are sinful and in need of forgiveness but it is extremely frustrating trying to pin them down on exactly WHAT is sinful, what actions or words or thoughts are bad. Too often the conversation seems to end up somewhere in the neighborhood of a the rather vague; “well you should just love your neighbor as yourself.” The cross is lost here because there is nothing for which the cross is actually needed. If there is no solid concept of wrong and of sin, then the cross becomes irrelevant, at least as the means of salvation.
The more “conservative” churches have also lost the cross, however. John Fischer in his book “On a Hill Too Far Away” writes of his experience growing up in an evangelical church in which there were few crosses or symbols: “This lack of symbolism is indicative of a certain theology as well. As an evangelical, I have become accustomed to viewing the cross primarily as the doorway to becoming a Christian. When I was growing up the cross was preached to people who were unsaved, remembered among believers as essential to salvation. But once you were a Christian, it pretty much faded back into the wall. The bulk of our time was spent trying to be good Christians. The cross for us was part of a review course on salvation rather than a fundamental element of the life of faith. The cross was the way in more than the way on,” Far too often conservative churches have lost the cross itself. A friend of mine started attending a large non-denominational church and was very excited about. It was such a “Christ centered congregation” this friend told me. So I listened to some services online. In 4 weeks of 90 minute long services Christ was mentioned maybe 5 or 6 times – in total - outside some hymns and the cross was mentioned only once, on Easter morning. This friend had mistaken the third use of the Law for “Christ centeredness.” This church was not about what Christ had done but what we should do.
As I read through blogs and discussions from all sides of the political and theological spectrum, it seems the cross is seldom visible, especially in discussions of social issues like homosexuality and transgenderism. What I find fascinating is that both side do seem to recognize the loss of the cross. But both try to fix it by doing more of the same. The more liberal pastors I have had dealings with seem to move more in the direction of encouraging Christians to be nicer and show an ever more loving Jesus. While my experience of more conservative churches, especially on issues like homosexuality and transgenderism, is that they double down on the Law, finding ever more creative means to present the “perversion” of LGBT people and issues while continuing to reduce and withhold the cross in practice. Each seems to apply to themselves the fix that they believe is actually appropriate for the other. And it is really kind of silly. Not to mention utterly ineffective.
But that cross needs to be central and it needs to be seen!
Continue to Part 3: How identity is formed and how the Church has contributed to the formation of a "LGBT" identity.