God and Gender: A Balanced View
Gender issues fill the news and the political arena. Battle lines are drawn. Where does the church stand when it comes to combining Biblical truth and compassion? Here are my thoughts:
God loves gay people, and godly people do too.
God designed sex to be expressed between a man and a woman in the context of marriage. Any other sexual expression is, therefore, outside of God’s design.
a) Homosexuality is a sin, not the sin.
b) Homosexual behavior is sinful, but a same-sex orientation is not.
c) Any sinful act or lifestyle is ultimately destructive to us and offensive to God.
God will always give strength for believers to face any temptation and has power to transform lives.
The church is to be a community of fellow strugglers who authentically and truthfully journey together toward greater wholeness and healing.
“Homosexuality is certainly a hot topic, and one that stirs up lots of emotion. That was illustrated to me a few years ago by a fellow senior pastor of a large church on the West Coast. He related a faux paus during one of his sermons.
The pastor was teaching about sexuality, and he opened his sermon by telling a story from his childhood, when he first realized that boys and girls really are different from each other. The first line of his message was, “The first time I realized my own sexuality…” They have three services on Sunday, and in the first service, he messed up a little bit. He said, “The first time I realized my own homosexuality…” He then caught himself, and corrected it, actually started over. During the second service, he was concentrating really hard, and actually shared with that service his earlier mistake. Then, on the third service, he said, “The first time I realized my own homosexuality…” and then went, “Acchh! I keep doing that!” Then continued, without making the correction. In this particular church, especially, this was quite a statement to make. Nobody heard a word he was saying after that. They just sat there, with their mouths hanging open. After a while, his worship pastor interrupted him and said, “You know how you keep messing up that first line. This time you messed up, but you didn’t correct it.” He then did.
Although it was a funny story, this pastor shared that it actually caused him lots of problems. Not everyone had a sense of humor about it, and some of his detractors spread rumors that it must really be true—a Freudian slip. People left the church over that, which shows just how sensitive this particular issue is. People in culture may have a sense of humor about it, but often in church that’s not the case.
So I want to cut through any tension and simply take a look at what the Bible teaches about homosexuality and what the implications are for us as Christ-followers. If you are uptight right now, just relax…take a breath.
Before we do look at the Scriptures, I do want to say a few important things. First, I am not an expert on gender issues and sexual identity. I don’t pretend to be. So, I am not going to be giving my expert opinions about those things, because I don’t have any. I am simply going to attempt to stick with what the Bible clearly teaches and try to be very humble about issues the Bible doesn’t address, such as are people born gay or do they become gay due to various environmental influences after birth. You or I can have opinions about that, and various researchers have opinions about that, but the Bible doesn’t answer that question, so I’m going to be very open and humble about that one. I don’t know, and there are other issues surrounding the topic in that same category.
Secondly, this whole issue of sexual orientation and identity is far more complex than many people try to make it. In doing the research I’ve done, I realize that this is a very complex issue, and I’ve been impressed with some Christian thinkers who seem to understand that and really very frustrated with others who try to make this whole discussion simplistic. I don’t want to make that mistake, and I also want to avoid making blanket statements about anyone, stereotypes that are unfair. Some of what I’ve read make these blanket statements from highly questionable studies on homosexuality about all gay people being a certain way or having a certain agenda. I don’t like it when people make such blanket generalizations about groups I am part of, such as evangelical Christians, and I don’t want to do the same to any other group. When we are in a group, we know how much diversity and complexity there is. When we are outside a group, it’s easy to make stereotypes. Let’s not do that, and in any follow-up discussions let’s not let each other do that. Slander is a sin that is listed as one of the top seven God particularly hates.
The last disclaimer I’ll make before moving on is this: because this issue is very complex, I am not pretending that I’m going to answer every issue on this topic in one article. My words are a discussion starter, not ender. With all that said, let’s isolate what the Bible clearly teaches about homosexuality and gender issues.
1) God loves gay people, and godly people do too.
God is not homophobic. God loves gay people. Do I really have to list a bunch of Bible verses about God’s love for humanity? God doesn’t love labels. He loves people. Whether people are gay or straight, Asian or European, black, white, Hispanic, male or female—he loves people, as they are. One thing that unites everyone in this room, whoever you are, is that God loves you with a crazy, unconditional love.
If God loves that way, then godly people do too. Anyone who doesn’t is just not godly. We describe our churches as a “come as you are” churches, because that’s the church Jesus envisioned and how he lived his life. Jesus would not want to go to a church where gay people aren’t welcomed with open arms.
I’ve been very impressed with gay people I’ve met here in our church who are so forgiving for the incredibly bad treatment that they’ve received all their lives, or at least after they came out, from people within churches. Often the church is the worst place to be. People who name the name of Christ are often the same ones saying horrible things or walking around with signs about how God hates gay people, how such people deserve hell. Often Christians act as if gay people are the enemy, and treat people that way.
Or even if it isn’t that blatant, we allow environments to exist where gay people are maligned or made fun of, where jokes and barbs are thrown around. And I’ll have to raise my hand on that one in my own past, where I have joined right into some of that. I used to laugh at gay jokes, until I became friends with several gay people, and then God convicted me of my sin toward them. After developing friendships with gay people, gay jokes were offensive, not funny. So, for those who are gay here today, and have been treated badly by people naming the name of Christ, I apologize. I can promise you that the God who grieved seeing how his Son was maligned and persecuted has also grieved seeing you maligned and persecuted.
Another pastor friend of mine in Grand Rapids did a great job of building an environment that welcomed those with any sexual orientation simply by doing a funeral. A family wanted a pastor in the area to do a funeral for their gay son who died with AIDS. Every pastor the funeral home called said no, until they got to my friend. He said, “I’d love to!” Just that one little display of love toward a group of people who have felt such hate from churches opened the door to reach hundreds of people for Christ. That’s the kind of environment Jesus wants to build, and any time we violate that we grieve the Holy Spirit who is at work in the church.
God designed sex to be expressed between a man and a woman in the context of marriage. Any other sexual expression is, therefore, outside of God’s design.
To understand God’s design for human sexuality, let’s go all the way back to the beginning, to the book of Genesis, 2:18: The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
The Lord God made a woman, brought her to the man, v 24: For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
We learn a lot about God’s design right in these few verses. First, God created sex, and therefore sex is a really good thing. Two, He created humans with gender, male and female, and the suitable complement for Adam was a woman. Third, sex was not only designed for man and woman but in this committed relationship called marriage, where man and woman enter into a covenant relationship.
So, God’s design for sex was to be between a man and a woman in the context of marriage, as man and woman enter into a covenant relationship. Any sexual expression outside of that design is sinful and ultimately, therefore, destructive. Homosexuality is one departure from that design, because God did not create sex or marriage to be a same sex relationship. Since homosexuality violates God’s blueprint for sexuality, it shouldn’t be too surprising that when the Bible speaks about homosexuality it describes it as a sinful departure from God’s will for us.
Leviticus 20:13 says: ‘”If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable…
The same word is used in that passage to describe adultery, or sex outside of the marriage relationship, by the way. Romans 1:18 and 26-27 says: The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness…Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
There is not one example where homosexuality is mentioned in the Bible where it is condoned. Because it is outside of God’s design, it is always described as sin. That said, we need to remember some important things about this.
Homosexuality is A sin, not THE sin.
Let’s keep reading in Romans 1, that just talked about homosexuality in Romans 1:28-32: Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
That’s quite a list of sins, homosexuality being one of them…but one of them. Christians often put homosexuality on a sin pedestal so high, that people who struggle with sexual identity issues or who want to work through things, can’t. Sins like arrogance, materialism, gossiping, slander, are fine for people to struggle with, but often homosexuality is not even okay to be a struggle. Galatians is another example where homosexuality is one of many sins listed to avoid, but one of many. We are all sinners, and all of us on this journey toward wholeness and healing in our lives need to be free to be honest about our struggles and create environments where that can happen.
Homosexual behavior is sinful, but a same-sex orientation is not.
Another extremely important thing to remember in this discussion is that homosexual activity is sinful, but not the orientation that direction. This does get to the most common objection to what the Bible says about homosexuality: “This is just how I am made. If I could choose to be different I would be, but this is who I am. It’s not fair, how could God condemn me for just living out who I am?” I do not doubt the reality that many people have a strong same sex orientation that is just as strong as my opposite-sex orientation. Whether we are born with that or environmental factors contribute to that orientation, or a combination of that, is up for debate. However a same-sex orientation develops, that orientation is no different than any other kind of orientation someone can have toward a particular behavior or lifestyle outside of God’s will.
We are all sinful people, and that means we all have strong orientations toward things outside of God’s will for us, whether that’s pride, a bad temper, slander, gossip, materialism, pornography, alcohol abuse, a gambling addiction. Every one of us in this room has life struggles with sin, strong magnetic pulls away from God and toward sin. Having an orientation toward something doesn’t make it legitimate. I have strong orientations towards certain sins that are temptations I have to fight and struggle with, and work through, and so do you. We are all born depraved, sinful people, and we will struggle with sinful tendencies and temptations. We can’t just say, “Well, that’s just the way I am. I can’t control my anger. I can’t help it!” We can win over temptation and tendencies.
Just because we have an orientation toward something doesn’t mean we have to translate orientation into activity. And orientation, or temptation, is not sinful. The activity is.
The Bible says that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are. He knew temptation, but he did not know sin. He felt that strong pull, but did not sin. If someone has a strong same-sex orientation and preference, that’s not sin. Acting it out is.
Any sinful act or lifestyle is ultimately destructive to us and offensive to God.
God isn’t being mean here. He laid out a way of life according to his will because he wants us to find joy and meaning and hope and righteousness. Ultimately, any sinful path is destructive in our lives, not constructive. Because of that, I would not be a loving pastor to act like homosexual activity is no big deal, because it is. It, like all sin, dishonors God and harms us and our relationship with God.
A number of years ago, I was talking with a pastor friend of mine at a week-long training I was one of the speakers for. He was a pastor of a very large church in LA that had just been on the cover of Newsweek for their incredible ministry to those affected by HIV/AIDS. We took a walk together to talk, and I asked him about his ministry and how a church like ours could better show love to that population. He began to talk of the overlap between that group and those who were gay, how much hurt and distrust there is in the gay community toward church in general. I asked, “How can we do a better job loving those who choose to live a gay lifestyle?” He then said, “Please don’t call it a choice. For some of us, that’s how God made us.” “Oh,” I said. “Oh…” It took me aback, because I didn’t expect that. But we were friends by then, and I said, “James, if we are going to grow in friendship, honesty and authenticity has to be at the heart of it. I want you to be honest where you are coming from, and for me to love you well, I need to be honest as well. I believe choosing to live out that lifestyle is a choice, even though a person may have a strong same-sex preference that they would not have chosen, and that there is a distinction there. I also believe that anyone who goes down any path outside of God’s will is going down a self-destructive path, and I don’t want that for anybody I love. So, I want you to be honest, and I want the freedom to be honest in return, and then we can be real friends.” He said, “You know, I accept that. I get that you want what is best for me, and we might disagree about what that is, but I don’t want you to do anything less than what you said.” It’s not loving to be dishonest, but we can love those we disagree with as well.
God will always give strength for believers to face any temptation and has power to transform lives.
1 Corinthians 10:13 says No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
Sexual temptation is perhaps the hardest to fight, but God’s promise is real. He will strengthen us so that we can win over any temptation, and always provide a way of escape.
When it comes to same-sex orientation, this does seem to be a very powerful tendency. Over time, can God transform that? Sure he can, and there are stories of that happening, as people pursue counseling and engage loving community, that God actually changes that whole tendency and preference.
But often that is not what happens, as with any other orientation away from God’s will. I love hearing stories about people who struggle with addiction for example, where God just takes the desire away. Those are cool stories, but they are the rare ones.
My own experience with sinful tendency and orientation is that he has not taken all my sinful tendencies away. What he has done is given me strength to face them, as I am honest with God, honest with other supportive friends, as I flee tempting situations, and then trust God to be faithful. It’s actually in that weakness that spiritual growth happens, as we learn what it means to rely on God, as we learn what it means for him to be our strength.
Friends of mine with a same-sex orientation tell me that this is a strong orientation; there is no flip of the switch to change it. If there was, they would flip the switch. Therefore, unless God changes that orientation over time, then what are Christians with a gay orientation left with as an option? A celibate life, which is a hard reality. Celibacy is a tough road, and can feel like a curse, like it isn’t fair. How could anybody live that way?
But let’s take a fresh look at this hard reality, because the nature of God’s redemptive power is that the hardest realities become the most profound opportunities. Stick with me a few minutes on this, and let’s turn in our Bibles, or the ones in the seat backs, to 2 Corinthians 12, where we learn that the things we struggle with most, that we want God to remove the most, might be the very things we become most thankful for in the end.
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10: No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Paul describes both outer struggles, persecution and the like, and this inner struggle he had which he describes as a thorn in the flesh, something that Satan used to torment him, a real struggle in his life. We don’t know if it was a sin struggle, an emotional struggle, or a physical struggle, because he doesn’t tell us. It could have been any of these. Three times he prays fervently for God to take it away, and each time God said no, and then a final word: My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.
This is a very profound reality for anyone who wants more than anything else to be godly. For anyone who wants more out of life than for it just to be easy.
Some of our struggles that we want so badly for God to remove, that we see as enemies to real life, may actually be the very things God will use to give us real life, real godliness, depth of maturity.
In Paul’s case, when he prayed for God to change him, to remove the struggle, God didn’t do that. And what Paul came to learn is that the struggle itself was the very thing God used to give him what he wanted most—real godliness. Struggles are not enjoyable, but the deeper the struggle the greater the opportunity for God to be strong in our weakness. When God allows a thorn in the flesh, when God allows a struggle, even as we pray for him to remove it, maybe the most gracious thing he can do is to not remove it, so that this profound growth can happen.
If you have been a Christ-follower for some time, chances are you have run into the writings of Henri Nouwen. Henri Nouwen was a brilliant man, a former Harvard professor, who later devoted his life to work with the mentally challenged. He is also arguably one of the godliest people of our generation and certainly one of its most profound writers on the Christian life. If you have never read a Henri Nouwen book, you really need to make that a goal for this year. If you do, it won’t be your last. What a lot of people don’t know, and what he wasn’t public about until the last years of his life, is that he was a gay man living a celibate life. His thorn in the flesh was a same-sex orientation that God never removed. Instead, God gave him the strength to live a celibate life, and in that struggle, incredible maturity and depth was born. That depth of understanding and intimacy with God does not come cheap. It only comes with struggle, allowing Christ to be strong in our weakness. Without weakness, there is no real growth.
Here’s where that takes me. For those of you who identify with Henri Nouwen with a same-sex orientation, that struggle may well be a gateway to a profound relationship with God and ability to impact others. In obedience, he chose a life of celibacy, because God never took that basic desire away. I believe that this particular struggle that we are talking about today, one of basic sexual identity, is one of the most difficult struggles a Christ-follower can face, but the deeper the struggle, the greater the opportunity.
I will never be a Henri Nouwen. I do struggle, and I am learning what it means for God to be present in that struggle and be strong in that weakness. But I don’t struggle at the same depth that he did, and that some of you have the opportunity to do. If you walk in obedience as he did, relying on Jesus for strength, you have the opportunity to be a Henri Nouwen in a way that I just don’t. And we need you to be. God’s redemptive powers are such that the best leaders, most profound writers and sages, will come from those who struggle with issues as profound as same-sex orientation that God might never remove.
In fact, that’s the only way such people can develop to be who they are. I’m not saying this is easy, but it is a profound opportunity. You could get angry at God, or you could blow it off and live in disobedience, but what a missed opportunity!
The church is to be a community of fellow strugglers, who authentically and truthfully journey together toward greater wholeness and healing.
We are all just a group of fellow sinners and strugglers. We are all just a bunch of messed up people, on this journey together toward wholeness and healing and transformation. God accepts us as we are, and then he begins to transform us. All too often though churches become places that crucify honest strugglers rather than embracing them.
Chase Oaks must be a place where we can find real community, in life groups for example, where we can be honest and open about any struggle and find help and encouragement and healing and strength for the journey. Yes, it is a walk of obedience based in truth and holiness, but it must be one where we patiently help each other take each step and get back up when we fall.
This week, I received this email from a fellow church member, that puts a very personal face on this issue we are talking about:
Dear Mr. Jones, I wanted to thank you and the church for your Urban Legends series, especially the sermon about God not being homophobic. That truly means a lot to me. Ever since I have come to terms with my sexuality a couple of years ago, it has been hard going to church because I am wondering what people are thinking of me and if they are judging me. It happens to me every single day, but sometimes I feel it is the worst at church. It hurts knowing that you are a Christian but people don’t like you because your sexuality is different. Trust me, if it was up to me I would change my sexuality in a heartbeat. When I came out to my friends, I lost nearly all of them. I am grateful to still have my family though. Some people don’t even have that. In high school, before I came out, people were using vulgar slurs at me, shoving me against lockers, and even chanting death threats. It has gotten better since college, but it is still difficult. What is hard is that I can’t tell my younger sibling about my sexuality. I want to tell him, because he is starting to turn homophobic, saying that gay people are creepy and evil and deserve to go to hell. It hurts knowing that your own family is saying that about you…
He continues, but how do we love our brother well? Like all of us who struggle with whatever we struggle with, we point each other toward God, toward a righteous path, and we lovingly help each other take step after step. Henri Nouwen once wrote about such depth of friendship:
Henri Nouwen wrote these words:
When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing, and face us with the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.
– Henri Nouwen
For those with a same sex orientation, I admire you for sticking with me, but the truth is we all have some hard truth to hear on this message. But I do want you to hear something in conclusion. If that is your struggle, you are no different than any of us who also struggle with various other temptations and desires. Christ is working on all of us. You are surrounded by bad company here, a big collection of messed up people who are honestly seeking God.
Rather than shoving sin underneath the surface or just rationalizing a sinful path though, we are committed to bringing it out into the open and helping each other move toward healing and obedience and wholeness. God calls all of us to become something we aren’t naturally, which is like him. Whatever the nature of our struggle toward obedience, I hope you feel free to join fellow Christians in this journey.”
www.chaseoakschurch.org. Also view panel discussion: http://www.chaseoaks.org/2016/05/conversation-gender-dysphoria/