A pastoral perspective on LGBT issues and questions
By Pastor Jack Witt
Mark 8:15 (GW)
Jesus warned them, “Be careful! Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod!”
I have watched with great interest as Christian pastors and leaders have tried to figure out what careful language to use in addressing the moral, spiritual and legal ramifications of rising attention on the subject of the LGBT community and gay rights. It is a very complex issue for pastors today. The way that we talk about this subject is, by necessity broken up into three different groups. Some people will immediately be offended here because their view of integrity would require that we say the same thing no matter to whom we are talking, but that disallows for the fact that Jesus spoke differently depending on whether He was addressing the general public, the religious leaders or His own disciples. As we raised our own children we maintained expectations for them that we did not apply to the neighbor’s kid for obvious reasons, but when their cousins visited, there were overlapping areas of grace and requirements that applied to our kin.
The three groups are: the unbelieving world, the group of people who are committed to follow Jesus and love one another in Christian community, and direct relationships I have with LGBT individuals who are in my immediate circle of family or friendships.
1st Group – The Unbelieving World
The problem pastors’ encounter in addressing their position in Facebook posts is that all three groups are generally involved, so those inside the church who are looking for morally clear language are either affirmed or disappointed, and the same applies to the first and third groups. There simply is not a way to address this subject without offending someone. What I see a lot of my pastor friends doing through social media is addressing the first group; the unbelieving world. Essentially they are saying “Hey, we are not judging you. We love you and want God’s best for you. We do believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, so please don’t expect us to solemnize marriages between same-sex couples (and please don’t sue us for refusing to do that)”.
The Yeast of the Pharisees
In my opinion, the adjustment back away from being moral police who are here to tell the world how to live is a welcomed and necessary one. The church has created a good deal of the angst that is now being thrown and flaunted in our faces because we have demanded that spiritually blind people walk a straight line while we have selectively minimalized or exaggerated various moral behaviors as they suited our lifestyle or offended our sensibilities. The Bible essentially says that no one sin is weighted as more than another. Sin is sin, is sin, etc… This incidentally is why the LGBT community is so opposed to the church. We have vilified homosexuality while winking at other sins like greed, pride and gossip. A sizeable harvest from many years of planting self-righteousness is coming in off the fields and we have to make some hard decisions about eating from it and planting more, or confessing our errors and sending it off to be burned. This is what Jesus pointed to on several occasions with His disciples, warning them about the invasive yeast of a Pharisee. Any degree of tolerance that we give to religious legalism in our own souls or in the institutions we lead will not remain confined in shape or size to that original allowance; it will infect and pollute everything.
There are a considerable number of people in local churches who are relieved to hear kinder and gentler words being used by preachers toward the unbelieving world. They have felt the angst in the world against the church and have likely had to defend the religious moralism dished out by the church in more direct ways than many pastors ever do. They work every day with openly gay co-workers, they watch Modern Family and follow celebrities like Ellen Degeneres who are smart, funny, compassionate, in committed relationships, and a lesbian. It is extremely difficult to hold the course, much less the values toward puritanical morality when it seems that no one really knows where true North is anymore and the compass is missing or suspected of being unreliable. The message of the church becomes much easier to live with when it agrees with the message of the unbelieving world, so we adjust to accommodate for that, framing our entire existence, purpose and mission by a single, yet personally definable word: love. Who is going to argue with that? A collective sigh of relief is breathed out by believers all across the world when Christian leaders tell the unbelieving world that we are not here to judge, condemn or moralize; we love. There is in that relief, however, the entry point of another kind of yeast about which Jesus also warned. We will get to that in a minute.
2nd Group – The Community of Faith
The second group that Pastors address is extraordinarily unique. They are unique because something has transpired in their lives that has changed everything. Jesus defined what would take place in people who moved from unbelieving to believing as He gave Paul his commission to, “…open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts 26:18 – NKJV). This transformation is the result of faith in Christ and has nothing to do with our choices regarding holiness which affects personal and social morality. It is in the afterward of receiving forgiveness and this inheritance as sons and daughters of God that holiness becomes an expected and accountable way of life. In contrast to the way that we cannot expect those who are spiritually blind to walk a straight line, those with open eyes and being turned from darkness to light should no longer act as if they cannot see right from wrong, good from evil, constructive from destructive.
You may have never noticed that most of the letters written to churches in the New Testament are written in halves. If you are looking for the personal and social morality of holiness, you will need to skip to the second half of the letter. If you are looking for the message of faith, grace and what Jesus has done for you to secure your salvation and rework your identity, you will need to start in chapter one verse one. It is always arranged this way because expecting moral compliance from those who have not first experienced grace and received a transformed nature will only produce frustrated legal compliance. On the other hand, when no such expectations are placed on those who have received this grace, we short-sell the obligations of new birth in Christ and produce people who call themselves Christian, but are not being in any way conformed to His likeness. The letter to the Romans is a perfect illustration of this. Paul spends the first eleven chapters describing the salvific work of Jesus and the effects of that work in people who call on His name through faith. It is from Romans chapter eight that we mine the words, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:1 – NJKV).
Perhaps you remember the words that begin the twelfth chapter of Romans, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship. 2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:1-2 – NIV). The words “in view of God’s mercy” point back to the eleven chapters of Jesus exalting, salvation-examining theology he (Paul) has just penned. The remaining chapters of this letter are highly moralistic; essentially calling for people to live out the obligations that have been set upon them as a result of receiving God’s grace. The question is real and penetrating: If you have been born of God through grace, how can you continue to habitually live in ways that are at odds with His character and your making? This is where the subjects of lying, stealing, murder, gossip and sexual immorality of all sorts find their application. It is a given that these ways are practiced and endorsed by the unbelieving world. These sins must not be practiced by those who have identified themselves with Christ and received His grace, but they also must not be applied in expectation of compliance toward those who have not. We believe that Jesus extends grace and accepts as they are all who would come to Him worn out by religious striving or hollowed out by living in darkness. But we should not believe for one minute that Jesus would be happy to leave them that way.
Born Again LGBT
While the social waves of marriage equality, protected status for LGBT, and hyper-exposure to gay subject matter in movies, realty shows and sitcoms was convulsing on the surface, a clear and organized LGBT effort has been growing steadily in churches, denominations and particularly in Christian seminaries throughout the US. The basic premise is to contest the historic teaching against homosexuality as a sin and accept that God made certain people gay meaning that they can be considered gay Christians, gay Christian leaders, and gay ministers and pastors. In order to make homosexuality an acceptable practice scripturally, two things had to be done to the scripture.
First the inspiration, authority and infallibility of the Bible had to be discredited. I had heard rumors for a number of years that suggested a majority of professors teaching at some of the oldest and most respected seminaries in America simply did not believe that the Bible is the inspired, authoritative and infallible Word of God. While attending a theological institute held at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey during my sabbatical two years ago, I heard and saw not only how true these rumors were, but how far reaching the damage to faith and practice had advanced. One of the professors on the second day of the institute was responding to a question and made this statement: “We no longer believe that the Bible is infallible. We believe that it is reliable, but not infallible.” If you think about it, the barriers against the acceptance of certain practices that are explicitly prohibited in scripture cannot be overcome by any other device. You must discredit the Bible if you want permission to be called a Christian and live against what it teaches.
The second thing that had to be done to scripture is to wildly reinterpret its meaning. This has been going on for a very long time outside of the circles of Christian scholarship, but now Christian professors and authors are joining ranks with voices that are challenging traditionally held interpretations of key passages specific to the subject of homosexuality in the Bible. This is the workaround designed for those groups and leaders who still contend for the inspiration, authority and infallibility of the Bible. You can still believe the Bible is God’s inerrant Word, but you must rethink how you interpret specific passages.
You can decide where you want to stand on this subject. I am committed to act in love, but strongly challenge the harm that is being done to sacred scripture by people with a self-serving agenda. As far as people who claim to be followers of Jesus who are also gay, I will not dispute that they have received Christ’s free offer of salvation. Many of you were born again and still operated out of greed, had explosive anger and battled addictions. An openly gay man attended a couple of services at the City Church a few years ago. He caught me after the service, informed me that he was a gay man, that he loved God and wondered if he would be accepted in our church. I told him that I was glad that he had surrendered his life to Christ and placed his faith in Him. I then told him that he would be welcome here and I would be willing to pastor him as long as he was committed to seek the fullness of Christ’s transforming grace and respond to all that the Holy Spirit was seeking to do to sanctify him and conform him into the image of Jesus. He knew what I was getting at. I told him that I saw his homosexuality as a result of sin’s damage and brokenness that was no different than the person who is caught in addictions, chases adulterous relationships, is driven by greed or lies to protect their ego. If he was willing to seek the fullness of Christ’s freedom we would walk with him, love him and support him, even through failures and setbacks. It was clear from that conversation that he was seeking affirmation of his homosexuality and he never returned.
3rd Group – Family and Friends
This is where LGBT questions get most difficult to answer. I have found that most people are not engaged with the national movement for Gay Rights; they are not interested in its social agenda, they don’t care about the politics. If heterosexual Christians are struggling to find a way to support or defend homosexual lifestyles it is the result of a direct family or friendship relationship that they want to protect or preserve. Our identification with the person and our affections for them send us searching for ways to rationalize, justify or figure out how they can be okay as they are, because we want them to be okay. In many situations these family members and friends have shared the deep pain of rejection and judgment for feeling an attraction to someone of the same gender. We don’t want to be a part of that pain. We want to be understanding and supportive.
The other primary factor in these immediate relationships is we see the humanity involved. If homosexuality is only viewed as deviant sexual practices it is easier for us to dehumanize it and reject the behavior. When we see the struggle, the confusion of emotions and the deep commitment that a friend has had to make in order to “come out” and then dealing with all the whirlwind of questions, misunderstanding, rejection and fixes that are pushed in their face, we can’t dehumanize it as a mere matter of sexual practice. What we must keep in mind is that this is part of the deception of sin. Whether their same-sex attraction has been in them as long as they can remember or if it was awakened by sexual experimentation, the best way to keep the moral and spiritual questions off limits is to tie it to their primary identity and to love. “If you reject what I do and what I want and need, you are rejecting me” is an impossible puzzle to try and solve. A good portion of this diversion is caused by Hell’s influence as people are deceptively kept away from Christ-provided solutions. Some other portion of keeping this subject off limits is driven by those who do not want the path they have chosen subjected to questions or discussion.
The motivation we have to face in these complex situations is: We don’t want to lose our relationship with them by calling what they are experiencing something other than natural and right. You could go to the extreme and say that sacrificing your relationship with them is better than them being lost for eternity. That is a hard choice to make and I’m not sure that your confrontational disapproval is going to change the way they view themselves and their choices to follow through with their identity and relationship path. In fact the rejection of key friendships and family relationships is what tends to galvanize the resolve of people who are making choices against the current of acceptability.
Pushing aside your concerns and acting as if it is a wonderful thing that your sister has found her happiness in a lesbian relationship, however, is equally as ineffective. We have to be committed to live in the high-tension middle where words are chosen carefully, decisions are made through great prayer and the person continues to be loved and regarded as a person. My nephew is openly gay and lives with his partner in Brooklyn. He is one of my favorite people. On trips I’ve taken to the east coast I’ve spent time with my nephew and his partner, eating talking and laughing together. They decided to marry while on a trip to Europe and posted a picture celebrating this event on social media. I didn’t want to say anything about it, but I knew that I should. After some prayer I responded with something about being happy for him that he is happy and that my hope is that he would seek God’s best and blessings for his future. I never said “congratulations” because it would have been insincere and he would have read it as such. I sought to live in the high-tension middle by withholding judgment and acknowledging him as a person of great value to God and to me.
I think it is wise for us to consider that we are not as big of players in these situations as we might imagine. A person’s decisions relative to their sexual identity or orientation are not going to be measurably impacted by either my approval or my disapproval. When we put ourselves at the center of these matters we will tend to make poor decisions that are motivated by fear, a desire to control something, or some faulty messianic complex. The central player in all of our lives is the Holy Spirit. Make sure you are cooperating with Him in the relationships you have with LGBT family and friends.
Getting Back on Mission
So the question remains, how do we (Christians who make up the church) think, act or respond when confronted with an unbelieving world that is looking for acceptance and approval of their darkness dominated life? We must go back to our commission. Jesus did not send us out on a mission to bring about social reform either through legislation or through personal disdain. He sent us to preach, witness, and testify about Him. The choice we are making in this generation is whether we are to specialize in getting people to behave morally or if we will specialize in getting people in front of Jesus.
We can trace the loss of power and effectiveness in the church directly back to shifts that were made away from our missional purpose to pursue social reform and imposing ourselves politically as a moral majority. We weren’t that when we said it; we are light years away from being that now. Decrying the practices of the unbelieving world communicates that personal improvement is the way to get right with God. That is humanly impossible and theologically wrong. Decrying the practices of the unbelieving world also communicates that we are better than them and opposed to them. Neither of those options is helpful in advancing the Gospel.
Most Christians are aware of this, but don’t know where to stand as they interact with people who want their actions and lifestyle accepted and normalized. The tendency that I see happening among Christians today is to move past what I call the high-tension middle and land at another place that is equally as unhelpful to the Gospel as is moralistic religious intolerance. I was confused to see a number of Christians make Gay Pride affirming statements or change their profile picture to the rainbow which is the symbol of the Gay Pride movement on the day that the Supreme Court release its ruling regarding the legalization of same-sex marriage. That may make them look supportive of these judged and disenfranchised people which I’m sure was the aim. Let me quickly say that I was equally concerned about the people who posted things like, “This is the worst day in history. God is ready to release His righteous judgment on America…” I understand the desire to move away from moralistic intolerance, but in my opinion, to be a Christian and identify with the agenda and values of Gay Pride, is one step too far.
The reality is that darkness ways have their own inherit consequences. People don’t need to be told they are out of sorts with God. By the function of conscience and the active work of the Holy Spirit in the world, people know that they are broken and disconnected from God. The effort that is being made by the LGBT community is not just to gain rights that they feel have been deprived from them; it is to gain acceptance and erase the stigma and social disdain that has historically been placed on them. It is not really any different than the alcoholic who demands that his spouse and children accept his drinking, never question it and absorb the financial, emotional and physical consequences of it. The drinking is itself a way to insulate him from the gnawing brokenness from which he cannot escape. The demanded acceptance of his lifestyle is another layer of insulation separating him from the conclusion that he needs something only a God-Savior can provide. It is the weight of sin and the natural and spiritual consequences of sin that God uses to bring people to Himself and the provisions of forgiveness, mercy and grace that He offers.
So where religious moralism has not helped bring people to Christ, neither will our smiling acceptance and endorsement. Please hear me, be respectful, be kind and gracious, and don’t moralize with people who are clearly unbelievers. But to identify yourself as a supporter of Gay Pride will be interpreted as an endorsement and with that endorsement you add to the layer of insulation that is keeping them away from feeling the weight of sin and disconnection from God. The more the church smiles and agrees with the redefinitions of family, identity and sexuality, the more the distinction between holy and profane things is blurred and forgotten.
We have applied the following passage to marriage (probably to the neglect of other applications), but Paul is reasoning with the Corinthians about their continuing entanglements and the draw that they were fighting to return to their former way of life in the world. He counsels with these reminders, “Stop forming inappropriate relationships with unbelievers. Can right and wrong be partners? Can light have anything in common with darkness? 15 Can Christ agree with the devil? Can a believer share life with an unbeliever?” (2 Corinthians 6:14-15 – GW). Again, this is not a license to get on some moralistic high-horse and reject LGBT individuals. It is a potent reminder that our role as salt and light in the world can only function in the environment of distinction. Too close of alignments with the thinking, values and worldview of unbelievers erases that distinction and prohibits the call of salvation which promises a removal from the power of darkness and provides entrance into the kingdom of God’s own Son (Colossians 1:13).
The Yeast of Herod
Earlier I mentioned the entrance of another kind of yeast. Jesus warned, not just of the yeast of the Pharisees; He warned His disciples about the yeast of Herod. Where the invasive influence of the Pharisees would lead to religious legalism and self-righteousness, the yeast of Herod leads to worldliness and sensuality. Herod was a man who embraced and accepted the Roman way of life and thinking. He symbolized a deal-maker with worldliness as an attempt to gain favor with everyone. It is this kind of compromise that James warns about: “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5 Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely?” (James 4:4-5 – NIV). James is not telling you to not be friends with unbelievers. He is warning about the influences of this Herodian yeast. When you begin loving the things that this world system loves and allow yourself to be impressed and attracted to the wisdom and thinking that belongs to that system, you are adding an influence to your soul that will grow to impact your whole being.
It is very important that we care deeply about people and identify with their struggle, but we cease being ambassadors of Christ when we over-sympathize with unbelievers to the point that we make them right with God through human acceptance rather than leading them to the right-making, saving, atoning blood of Jesus. The social opinion about homosexuality has shifted radically over the past few years. Part of that shift is due to the number of people who personally know someone who is openly gay. It is difficult to stay neutral or to hold distain for people who are close to us. The other part of that shift has to do with how wildly unpopular it has become to voice criticism toward LGBT individuals and their lifestyle. Again, I am not encouraging disdain or criticism toward them; I am pointing out how difficult it is becoming in American culture to be liked and accepted while being counter-cultural.
The idea that we are citizens of another kingdom and function as ambassadors representing and acting on behalf of a heavenly King is rich and rampant in the teaching of Scripture. It was Jesus in His famous teaching we came to call the beatitudes, who indicated that those who have an allegiance to the kingdom of the world will be opposed to us and would seek to persecute and silence us. The last in this list of beatitudes reads: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12 – NIV). Some have taken this to mean that we are to advance the Christian agenda, pushing back at the opposing kingdom through confrontation with their ways and social-political reform. I think that sort of take on counter-culturalism has contributed to some of the mess that we are in as the Christian church in America today. To be counter-cultural does not mean that we are adversarial, moralistic finger-pointers, but it does mean that we present a clear alternative to the ways, thinking, behavior and values of those who are aligned with the kingdom of the world. Jesus would go right from this statement on persecution to identify our role in this corrupt world as salt. Verse 13 of Matthew 5 reads: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.” The more the church gives itself to the yeast of Herod; adopting and accepting the thinking and values of Rome, the closer we get to becoming “no longer good for anything.” Here are a couple of the pitfalls of counter-cultural living:
- You will be asked to take responsibility for the way that your beliefs and practices make others feel
We can’t change or remedy that. Paul described it in these powerful words: “For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?” (2 Corinthians 2:15-16 – NIV). In other words, people are making the choice every day to seek Christ’s salvation or to reject Him and go their own way. To those who are coming into this salvation our lives of trust, love, purity and allegiance to Jesus will be received as a sweet smell; something attractive. To those choosing otherwise, our lives of trust, love, purity and allegiance to Jesus will be received as the repulsive smell of decomposing flesh. I don’t get to control or determine which of those two things happen (thus Paul’s question about who is equal to such a task?). If I cannot control or determine how I make other people feel then I cannot take responsibility for that either. I will not allow my attitude toward others to become intentionally provoking or stinky; I can control that.
- Neutrality will not be sufficient for those who are bent on being accepted as they are
As much as you try to not engage with people in debating on everything from legalized marijuana to the question of whether God made certain people gay, the ravenous appetite for approval and acceptance among many of those who are allegiant to the world, will not allow you to any place to stand besides affirmation of their choice. You will need to get persistent in redirecting conversations away from the lifestyle choice they want affirmed and toward their relationship with Jesus. “I’m not interested in your sexual orientation; I’m interested in your relationship with Jesus.” The fact is some will hold your friendship or even your family relationship hostage to your affirmation. Personal rejection is a weapon regularly used in this conflict of allegiances. Just make sure you are not the one doing the rejecting.
Edge Species and the Incarnation of Christ
I’ve described at length the outside edges of intolerant religious moralism on one side (the yeast of the Pharisees), and deal-making with worldliness on the other (the yeast of Herod). What exists in the center between these two extremes is what I call the high-tension middle. People of faith who follow Jesus are called to live there. In ecology most species are suited for survival within a particular ecosystem; they will thrive in the wetlands, but they will die in the high desert. There are certain species that are called edge species. They live in the space between two ecosystems and can move back and forth between them. Christians are a kind of edge species. We inhabit the space between a heavenly kingdom and a broken corrupted world. Living from the middle we are able to follow the King’s instructions and go in His power to preach, witness and testify about Him; bringing people in front of Jesus so that He can do powerful acts of forgiveness, transformation and freedom in their lives. It is not a particularly easy place to occupy. If we get too withdrawn from the world we lose our preserving influence. If we get too intertwined and attracted to the world we lose our ability to set out a clear alternative and point people to Christ. The best and truest example of high-tension middle living is the incarnation of Christ. God took on human flesh and entered the brokenness of a planet and people that He loved. He was never of the world, yet He entered fully into it; loving, serving, giving, healing, teaching, and delivering. He is still entering this world by His Spirit indwelling millions of His followers around the world. We are no longer of, but we are yet in the world… sent! Because He lived in the high-tension middle and gave us His Spirit so that we might be capacitated to do His will; we can too.