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Why evangelicals can no longer avoid addressing sexuality

A participant puts up a sign about his sexuality before taking part in the forming of a giant pink dot at the Speakers' Corner in Hong Lim Park in Singapore June 29, 2013.
A participant puts up a sign about his sexuality before taking part in the forming of a giant pink dot at the Speakers' Corner in Hong Lim Park in Singapore June 29, 2013. | Reuters/Edgar Su

It was about halfway through my college years when a friend and I were talking one day about the intersection between the LGBT movement and Christianity when he made a startling pronouncement that I’ve never forgotten: This will be the defining issue of our time, and he declared it would be the greatest challenge to what we believe.

When he said that, I remember thinking that may have been a bit of an overblown statement. After all, George W. Bush had just won re-election and opposition to social issues like gay marriage were part of what cemented his victory. Very few states at the time had legalized same-sex marriage, the majority of Americans believed that marriage was a union between one man and one woman, and very few Protestant churches at that point had embraced homosexuality as morally compatible with Christian teachings.

My, how things have changed in two decades.

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Today, believing that marriage is between a man and a woman, or believing homosexuality is a sin or that you are who your biology says you are will have you culturally looking like The Last Samurai, and if the recent Supreme Court ruling was any indication, it’s only going to get tougher from here.

In true 2020 fashion, this month was surprising in that it saw Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling (whose views are fairly liberal on sexuality) under intense scrutiny for daring to express concerns on Twitter about the implications of gender identity ideology for women. And Conservative Trump-appointed Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch helped cement a legal victory that saw the Supreme Court redefine the word "sex" as it redefined the word "marriage" five years ago, applying the 1964 Civil Rights Act to apply to sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace.

While most of us, including most evangelical Christians, are not opposed to the overall idea that employees should not be discriminated against for their personal lifestyle; without specific religious freedom protections, the complexity and legal ramifications from the court’s decision to essentially redefine sexuality present significant concerns. Legal challenges will follow in the months and years ahead for employers and organizations that adhere to biblical teachings on sex and gender.

And yet, that pales in comparison to the greatest challenge of all facing Christians in America on these issues, which is: properly presenting, addressing and discussing what a biblical understanding of sexuality even is.

As the tide has been shifting in our culture and as its messaging on sexuality has become louder and harder to ignore from just about every facet of society, most evangelical pastors and churches have opted for the cone of silence. Society has been loud and clear, while the church has been quiet and vague.

Perhaps out of fear of offending or perhaps in light of how complex, sensitive and difficult discussing sexual orientation and gender identity really is in today’s culture, the reality is that for Christians who believe the Bible is clear that sexual relations were intended to only be expressed within the context of monogamous heterosexual marriage, that message has always gone against the grain of culture.

As the Apostle Paul wrote his epistles admonishing his audience to be faithful to their husband or wife sexually, it was common practice to engage in sexual orgies with temple prostitutes for worship in the culture he was writing to. God’s standards of sexual morality never jell well with the society in which we live.

If we think we have it tough to hold to biblical convictions, try and imagine what being a Christian in the Roman Empire must have been like. A Christian is called to be salt and light, and we must rise to the occasion and the opportunity to be those things in the face of the cultural challenges we face in 2020 America, not try to avoid them or ignore them.

How are we to broach these tough topics? With love and truth.

It’s a simple yet profound balance that Jesus Christ came to bring on this earth (John 1:14), that He displayed by how He embodied compassion and conviction as He reached out in grace to the lost, hurting and broken around Him, but also challenged them to repent of their sin and follow Him with their lives.

In the era of social media tribal warfare, we are increasingly losing the art of being able to have respectful loving friendly relationships with people with whom we disagree strongly, and Christians’ response to the LGBT movement and community has been plagued with mixed messaging, to say the least.

Under the "Christian" umbrella, you have some churches and denominational groups that promote love to the LGBT community complete with rainbows outside their churches. But they abandon traditional orthodox long-held understanding of Scriptural teachings on sexual immorality. At the same time, other churches and groups under the umbrella preach biblical truth in anger instead of love, with an overemphasis on homosexuality that treat this sin as somehow worse than any other sin in the Bible, failing to make a distinction between LGBT identifying persons who are to be loved from the sin of homosexual behavior.

LGBT identifying people are first and foremost loved and wanted by God, created in the image of God, and they should be treated with love and respect.

When a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, experienced a mass shooting in June 2016 that left 49 people dead and wounded many others, it forced the culture wars to be paused and for those of us who believe homosexual behavior is sin to be reminded that the victims of this horrific tragedy were fellow human beings who should be loved, because Jesus Christ gave His life as a sacrifice for every member of the LGBT community, just as He did for me and for you.

Westboro Baptist should not be the stereotype that comes to mind as even close to an accurate reflection of what evangelical Christians are like or what they believe, or how they treat LGBT identifying people. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor, He didn’t suggest it.

Like the meme with a giant billboard that I’ve seen on social media says, “That ‘Love thy neighbor’ thing....I meant that. — God.” And the reality is sitting in the pews of churches across America we have fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who have and experience same-sex attraction.

Yet, Jesus in calling us to love, also calls us to, in love, hold onto and to speak the truth.

What is the truth about sex and gender?

The Bible says in Psalms 1:1-3:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD and on His law, he meditates day and night.” 

Basically we have three choices: We can listen to how we feel inside and the desires we experience daily, we can listen to what our culture and society are preaching to us daily, or we can choose to listen to what God says in Scripture about who He says we are and how we are to live.

In the opening chapters of Genesis, we find foundational theological truths to understanding God’s intended perfect design for our sexuality. He created one man and one woman, male and female; biologically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually different yet made to complement one another and to have a special and exclusive bond and union, as a sacred symbolic reflection of the intended relationship between humanity and the Divine, fearfully and wonderfully made.

It is in this context that the Creator intended sexual intimacy to be expressed, and that is a truth that is repeatedly emphasized throughout Scripture and the Bible is filled with more horror stories than the Adams Family as examples of what happens when we choose to live our way, like Frank Sinatra sang, instead of God’s way.

Our culture’s message is to do what feels right, the Bible’s is to do what is right, because while the world encourages us to live out our passions to experience pleasure to find happiness and satisfaction, the tragic irony of this is perfectly summed up by the great C.S. Lewis who said, “Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us.”

We have been following our parents' patterns established in the Garden of Eden, who after a taste of infinite joy chose to chase after a poor substitute. It’s been said that the true definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result. In that sense, we are all a bit like Joker. 

In the context of sexuality, as author Rebecca Mclaughlin (who has had same-sex attraction most of her life) said, “While we may not choose our sexual attractions, we do choose our sexual actions.” And, while there are several recent attempts to somehow gloss over or reinterpret what the Bible says about homosexuality to somehow make Scriptural teachings on this issue compatible with our cultural norms, the Bible is unequivocal in both the Old and New Testament (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, Romans 1:26-27,), that homosexual acts are sin.  

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.”(Matthew 16:24-25). 

Jesus’ statement and call to each of us to take up our cross, deny passions and desires that conflict with His heart for us and choosing to give up whatever is hindering us from wholeheartedly following Him is not an easy sell in the times in which we live, because it completely contradicts everything that our society encourages us to do. 

Yet Jesus makes an offer that even Michael Corleone can’t refuse: He promises us it will be worth it. A loving walk and relationship with the Creator of the Universe through His Son Jesus Christ is more joyous, satisfying and fulfilling than anything else we can experience in life, and our identity should be rooted in who God says we are.

Becket Cook, a gay Hollywood fashion designer who lived a homosexual lifestyle for 25 years of his life and gave his heart to Jesus said it best, “Christ showed me that my identity is in Him, not my sexuality, and His Spirit empowers me to live a life worthy of my calling.”

It is imperative that we dialogue with our children and grandchildren about sexuality and gender identity and to be intentional in imparting a biblical perspective on these difficult issues as schools and culture are filling in the blanks for us.

It’s important that the church as a whole cultivates an environment where these questions and struggles can be openly discussed rather than avoided and shamed, with a foundation of biblical love and truth upon which to interpret these tough topics.

For any pastor or clergy leader, let us remember the charge given to us from the Apostle Paul who said, “I did not shrink back from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). 

We must declare the ‘whole’ counsel of God, even the tough, difficult and toe stepping parts of the counsel of God, because we will have to answer one day for our silence, and timidity.  It’s time to be bold and address the defining issue of our time, with compassion and conviction, in grace and in truth.

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elementary principles of the world rather than on Christ.” — Colossians 2:8

Pastor Stephen Mitchell is the senior pastor at Trinity Bible Church in Severna Park, Maryland. He is also the author of Taking A Stand In Our Dying Land and has spoken in various churches and retreats.

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