(Photo: UMNS/Mike DuBose)
How should Christians express love and minster to couples living in a homosexual lifestyle when these couples attend church?
Both Christians and non-Christians seemed bewildered by the issue. It threatens to create an ever-deepening divide within the church. Recent sermons by well-known and popular pastors, who, while addressing sexual sin, stop short of saying homosexuality is forbidden or sinful, have produced intense controversy.
Even President Obama addressed the issue this week when he finally expressed public support for same-sex marriage (something that insiders on both the left and right assert the president has supported quietly all along):
"In the end, the values that I care most deeply about, and she (Michelle Obama) cares most deeply about is how we treat other people," Obama said.
To help answer these questions, The Christian Post sought out individuals who previously had been involved in homosexual relationships, pastors and noted Christian leaders who could provide a glimpse into what effective care looks like from their personal and professional experiences.
Without exception, everyone interviewed for this article agreed that taking a loving and empathetic approach is especially important for those who make the decision to attend a church – or already attend a church – since many involved in homosexuality have been scared by the church or carry around painful memories of prior experiences associated with Christianity.
But everyone agreed that at some point, the issue of sin has to be addressed in an appropriate manner, especially if they want to become involved or gain membership within the church.
Allen Hildreth, a born-again Christian who lives in East Tennessee describes himself as an "unassuming, laid back and non-confrontational" person. Until 10 years ago he was immersed in a homosexual lifestyle before finding Jesus.
Hildreth now counsels individuals and family members of those who are struggling with their sexual identity and he has first-hand knowledge of the complexity of the issue. However, he believes the first question Christians need to find out about someone who attends their church and is involved in a homosexual lifestyle is where they are in their relationship with Christ.
"I think the majority of men and women who are involved in homosexuality don't want anything to do with the church and they'll tell you so," Hildreth told CP. "But the ones who make the effort to come to church are looking for answers and it's our responsibility as Christians to help them. But the approach we take will most likely make the difference whether they stay in the church or leave."
"The first thing any Christian should do when anyone walks into a church is greet them warmly and welcome them to God's house," said Hildreth. "We're all sinners in need of a home. As far as the couple who is engaged in a homosexual lifestyle, I think the church should deal with them like they would anyone else – a drug addict, alcoholic or any other sinner. But the most important piece of advice I can offer is they should get to know them and listen to them."
Hildreth's advice was that men needed to deal with men and women with women. He said homosexuals sometimes have trouble dealing with the opposite sex so someone of the same gender needs to be the one to initiate the relationship. He went on to say that most of the time the public has a distorted view of most homosexuals.
"The overwhelming majority of homosexuals are not the ones you see on television news programs or who write blogs articles on websites," said Hildreth. "Most live quiet unassuming lives and want to be left alone."
"The activists are part of what we consider the 'elitist' group and they're the ones challenging the status quo and forcing the issue. Their goal is to convince the public that homosexuality is not a sin, but rather a part of who they are and that they're law-abiding citizens who are good neighbors and productive members of the community."
The issue of just how large the homosexual community is is another point widely debated. According to Harvest USA, a Christian organization that works with men and women who are involved in or struggling with homosexuality, 6 percent of males and 11 percent of females have had at least one same-sex sexual encounter at some point in their lives.
Approximately 8 percent of men between the ages of 18 and 44 are homosexual or bisexual, while 13 percent of women in the same age range fall into the same category.
Many associate homosexuality with men but as the statics point out, more women are involved in same-sex relationships than are men.
Penny Nance heads up Concerned Women for America and is a noted Christian leader in national evangelical circles. Nance agreed that Christians should show compassion and love to everyone but at some point the church has to deal with any sin.
"We are all sinners and need to be seen as such when we walk into church," Nance told CP. "But the church's role is to teach us God's Word, to point out our sin and make us uncomfortable and to show us Jesus is the only way to an eternal life. That's why it's so important to find a church where the pastor speaks the truth."
But the issue of why some pastors are willing to speak on homosexuality and others are not is also dividing Christians and church leaders. Hildreth pointed out that in his experience there are three reasons why pastors avoid the issue of homosexuality.
"I don't think many churches are addressing the issue at all," Hildreth pointed out. "First of all, I don't think many pastors understand homosexuality or think it's not an issue in their church. But the main reason it's not addressed is that pastors don't want to offend members who have children or family members living in the lifestyle. It's a real touchy subject and it's one motivated by membership and money."
"Plus, many living in a homosexual lifestyle don't see anything wrong with what they are doing and will argue such. That mainly stems from the fact that they don't have any type of Christian background or point of reference. That's why the pastors preaching what Scripture says about sexual sin is so important."
One pastor that feels strongly that the church needs to address homosexuality in a forthright manner is Phillip Meek of Love and Truth Church in Savannah, Tenn. A former athlete, Meek had to deal with an addiction to alcohol as a young man and believes that the church should serve as a place of restoration for hurting people and those who have fallen into sin, whether they are attending church or not.
"When someone falls into sexual sin the goal is to always help them be restored in their relationship with God," Meek said. "Sexual sin as with other sins, never affects just one person. It affects everyone involved because trust is broken, confidence is lost, and perceptions of that person altered. Restoring those involved in sexual sin depends on their willingness to receive help, guidance and direction."
"Questions we need to ask are do they take responsibility for their actions, or blame someone else? Are they willing to submit to a time of restoration not of their choosing but a time those that they are accountable to set for them? Each situation will be different but with an attitude of humility, and a willingness to be restored those entangled in sexual sin can find forgiveness and restoration for their lives."
Someone who deals with the issue on a daily basis is Dan Wilson of Harvest USA. Wilson has been counseling individuals who struggled with sexual addictions for over a decade and also thinks Christians should show compassion but take a firm position that homosexuality and other sexual sins are just that – sin.
"There is a saying in the South that 'we just love people to death,'" said Wilson in a telephone interview with CP. "But as Christians, we need to love them to life instead of loving them to death. Most people, including pastors and church leaders, are afraid to talk to some about their sin because they feel guilty about their own lives. We simply need to all agree that we're all sinners and that the reason Jesus died on the cross is for our sins."
One final issue that Hildreth addressed was that of church involvement. "As a Christian I feel it's my responsibility to minster to people and proclaim the Gospel of Christ," added Hildreth. "But at some point after the issue of sin is addressed, the other issue that will need to be addressed is what type of role they can have in the church."
Hildreth said few churches today exercise what is known as "church discipline," or removing those who refuse to repent of their sins after continued counseling and recognition of their sin.
"I feel the Church and Christians in particular need to show compassion at all times," he said. "But Christians are called to fellowship with other believers and there is a difference between fellowship and evangelism.
"Our job as Christians is to love and introduce the lost to the true Word of God. We are called to love even those who don't accept Jesus, but that doesn't mean we need to fellowship with them or allow them to join the church or assume leadership roles of any kind if they refuse God's Word."