THIS IS THE FOURTH IN A SERIES OF FIVE “STICKY CONVERSATIONS”
By Casey Tygrett
The kingdom of God has an open invitation.
Paul talks about it freely, saying that in Christ the distinctions that set up boundaries between us melt into a mist and simply fade away (see Galatians 3:28). The brilliance of Jesus shines brighter than the different tones of our culture, gender, and reputation.
I was thinking about this as I talked with a man who had recently started attending our church and had taken all the preliminary steps to get to know us as a church. Through a series of circumstances I discovered he was gay, that he and his partner had obtained a civil union, and that they were raising two teenage children together.
His question to me that day was clear: we know you won’t approve of our lifestyle, but are we welcome here? Can we come and worship here? Can we get involved here?
The discussion of homosexuality is prevalent today, from politics to education, and often produces high emotion. Christians, those whose inheritance is the kingdom of God ripe with invitation, have a question to answer. The question is not whether or not homosexuality is a sin, because there is a great deal of teaching in Scripture that sheds light on homosexual practice. Instead, the question is this: How do we discuss an inclusive kingdom with someone who has felt nothing but exclusion from many Christians? When we get beyond the question of “sin or no sin,” the conversation indeed becomes sticky.
If we as Christians are going to have a grace-filled, restorative, and invitation-oriented conversation with homosexuals, we need a framework that takes us beyond the detached theories about the issue and puts a human face on this sticky discussion.
I am drawn in this discussion to the times in Scripture when Jesus is seen receiving people. In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus talks of the wild and disobedient son received with open arms. Likely, the father would later talk about the value of money, but at the time there was acceptance. Jesus purposely made a Samaritan the hero figure in his parable, illustrating the commandment that summed up the whole will of God for humanity. No race or person was more rejected than the Samaritan, yet Jesus receives and redeems the Samaritan with one stroke of master storytelling. A woman set up by the religious elite for the sake of ambushing Jesus, trapped by her sin, is received and told with compassion to leave that life in which she was found.
In all honesty, these are the stories we love. They are the stories that Christians thrive on and return to in times of darkness as a reminder that when we are graceless, God is graceful. However, we also like to be selective with who can enter the story as the prodigal or the Samaritan or the adulterous woman. We are comfortable when they are people whose sins are like our own, but when they are people whose sin causes us fear, we become territorial about that invitation to the grace of God.
We are fine to come to Jesus and work through that which separates us from God, but we aren’t comfortable with those who practice homosexuality doing the same. The process of sanctification is long for the prideful or arrogant, yet we somehow expect it to be instantaneous for the homosexual. We hold an all-or-nothing pose toward homosexuality, even though we wouldn’t apply that same pose to our own shortcomings in following Jesus. Yet standing in the midst of the whole situation is the prodigal’s father, the Samaritan with the battered victim on his donkey, and the adulterous woman smiling in redemption.
So how do we enter into the conversation regarding God’s graceful invitation—the invitation that says come as you are and we’ll work on the rest—with those who practice homosexuality?
Distinguish Person from Practice
I recently had the great opportunity to talk with Andrew Marin, founder of The Marin Foundation, a group that works to bring reconciliation between Christians and the homosexual community through dialogue and understanding, as well as love and biblical teaching. After our discussion, I was struck with one very powerful insight: the greatest tool we have in understanding, loving, and reaching the homosexual community is to know their stories better. Marin’s group engages two of the most densely populated gay neighborhoods in Chicago—Andersonville and Boystown—through living in the midst of the everyday life and getting to know people and loving them regardless of their orientation.
Without knowing the person, we are left simply to make sanctimonious comments out of ignorance instead of offering sanctified guidance out of inspiration. I think those who practice homosexuality are more than open to hear the guidance of followers of Jesus if it is done in the context of relationship. The benefit of handling the discussion this way is summed up in this testimony from a young lesbian woman regarding her experience with the church: “I am not saying I actually believed we were wrong. I didn’t know. What I am saying is that the very fragile beginning of my present rich relationship with the Lord was marked by a deep sense of shame. I wish I had known a believer in Christ who would affirm that God and his people loved us and were devoted to us in our journey, regardless of the outcome.”
I’m reminded here of Jesus addressing the rich young man’s request for the way to eternal life. Mark’s account includes the softly powerful note that when the young man presented his credentials, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said . . .” (Mark 10:21, English Standard Version). Jesus was about to level this young man’s towering stature, but he was to do it from a place of distinguishing person from practice. We must be ruthlessly dedicated to seeing people who engage in homosexual practices rather than a nameless and faceless darkness called “homosexuality.”
Speak the Truth in Love
In turn, Jesus both receives and invites people to the kingdom life. It is a dance filled with tension, but it is reality in full beauty. The open-ended kingdom reception becomes an invitation to a path that leads us from darkness to light, from diminishment to beauty, from hate to love. The invitation is clarified when we love someone first and confront them second. In fact, when Paul utters the famous phrase “speaking the truth in love,” he then signifies that something mutually powerful happens to the church and to the followers of Jesus who gather there: “We are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15, ESV).
Is it possible the act of receiving gay and lesbian individuals through dialogue and invitation is a pathway through which we all grow in maturity and begin to resemble Jesus, after whom we’re all named? We definitely must call out the ways our culture has made sexual fulfillment the sign of being truly alive. We must call out how our behaviors—ours first, then others—flow out of the fact that we’re functioning awkwardly outside of the garden we were designed to inhabit (Genesis 3:14-24). In the act of calling ourselves to account first, we can transparently and redemptively have the sticky conversation regarding homosexuality with anyone and everyone, understanding that we are growing in the dialogue, and God’s Spirit is being given space to do the work of transformation that is only his to do.
I’ve come to understand I don’t define all sin as the same. I sometimes rank sin, and act unequally toward some destructive behaviors over others. The church needs to understand itself better, and one of the benefits of engaging this sticky conversation is that through it we gain a better understanding of whether we believe all sin is the same. At that point, we can begin to healthily and courageously invite everyone to follow Jesus on the narrow way that leads to life.
This is also where the idea of “reparative therapy” or “curing homosexuals” becomes null and void. If we believe homosexuality is sin, then we have to realize that any sin is a result of our attempt to replace God and our innate purpose of being with him. We must place God at the center again, through Jesus Christ, but we must also realize that in our broken state we will still struggle with the old “God-replacement” habits. There is a difference between someone with a homosexual orientation and someone practicing homosexual behaviors. Is it the practice that is sin or the desire? The “truth in love” here comes in understanding the weight of what we may believe God desires in the case of homosexual practice—for example, celibacy. We consider this enough to bring love alongside of truth in a way that supports someone through the process rather than simply starting the journey and walking away.
The Conversation Continues
There are many questions I didn’t answer. Likely there are new questions that have come up as a result of this article. Do we open baptism to those who practice homosexuality? Do we allow homosexuals to serve in nonleadership positions in the church? I believe that question needs to be answered by leaders of individual congregations.
The reality is that both the relationship and the conversation involved will enhance our understanding of God’s graceful invitation and bring to life the rich and subversive parables of Jesus.
Casey Tygrett is the spiritual formation pastor at Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, Illinois.
Kent Paris (Champaign, Illinois): Of course we are to love all people and speak the truth in love, but how we do so and the very words we use are critically important and have far-reaching consequences. Churches that do not clearly teach biblical identity and sexuality (including sexual immorality, behaviors unabashedly declared sinful by God in Scripture) fail people—especially in this muddy culture. Truth can set us free. Churches that would automatically bar the door to seeking, self-professed homosexuals or lesbians also fail miserably. It is a difficult challenge to be “welcoming but not affirming,” to uphold truth in a way that is loving, grace-filled, and compassionate. I laud Casey’s heart to reach out with the love of Jesus.
But Casey dismisses “reparative therapy” and throws in the frequent gay activist charge of “curing homosexuals” along with it. These “red flag” words come from such aggressively pro-gay groups as the Gay Christian Network and the formerly reputable Exodus International.
Reparative therapy has documented effectiveness, but media and culture keep dismissing it because it goes against their chosen belief that one cannot be held responsible for one’s own sexual orientation . . . and behavior. The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) is an organization of psychiatrists, psychologists, researchers, and therapists, all members of the American Psychological Association. Exodus, a once solid network of “ex-gay” ministries, has renounced restorative therapy (a target of gay activists), as well as the notion of “change.” This is a major reason we have formed Restored Hope Network. The issues embedded within the acquired condition of homosexuality are primarily developmental, issues within the family system, relationships with parents, and personal experience. For a great many people, same-gender attraction is indeed a reparative urge or effort.
As one of the original leaders in what has come to be called the “ex-gay” movement, we never used the term “cure” when counseling/ministering to those with same-sex attraction, nor would we have been so simplistic as to “pray away the gay” as we have wrongly been charged. What we unapologetically say is “change is possible.” What else could Paul mean in 1 Corinthians 6 when he says, “And such were some of you”? I am a living example.
Gary Zustiak (Joplin, Missouri): I have done much study on homosexuality through the years and have befriended a number of students who have struggled with same-sex attraction. I have a special place in my heart for men and women with this struggle, and I don’t feel the church has done enough to help them in the way of offering pastoral care and counseling for those who desire to leave this lifestyle.
But I am concerned by this article for several reasons:
Yes, Jesus accepted the Samaritan, but race is something a person cannot choose. A person can choose whether or not to engage in homosexual behavior.
Yes, the father received the son who had been wildly disobedient. But the repentant son was no longer in rebellion. He had repented.
Yes, Jesus looked kindly at the woman caught in adultery. But he also told her, “Go and sin no more.”
The article speaks of getting to know the person and not the practice. Would we advocate the same generous spirit toward the pedophile, the serial killer, the practicing embezzler? Yes, much can be accomplished by being relational and not judgmental, but this does not change God’s condemnation of homosexual practice.
All sin is NOT the same. God differentiated. Some sins required different and more sacrifices; some had different punishments.
Allow homosexuals to serve in positions of leadership? Would we allow a known and practicing wife beater or drug pusher to be in a position of leadership? The issue is not to be decided by any individual or groups of individuals but by the holy Word of God, and God has clearly spoken.
I appreciate Christian Standard’s willingness to take on the issue of homosexuality. Certainly the church needs to be more gracious and helpful to those who struggle and want help. But I think this article is not helpful.
Vince Antonucci (Las Vegas, Nevada): I love Casey’s thinking, especially that we have to know homosexuals not as a group but as individuals, with individual stories. Casey’s right that what we have to offer is truth and love, and I would add that the order is critical—we must lead with love.