Haydn Sennitt shares experience and insights for ministry with those with same-sex attraction.
In today’s modern, liberal, western cultures, what is the number one issue dominating public discussion? Is it climate change, whaling, North Korea, or penal substitutionary atonement? While all those issues are important to differing degrees, particularly the latter, none at the moment are as important as homosexuality. Discussions about it are occurring with gay abandon and show no sign of abating. Gay and ‘straight’, Christian and non-Christian, young and old, liberal and conservative all have gay relationships on their radar. Its influence is occurring beyond western borders: South Korea is now considering proposed laws that ban discrimination against gays and recently the first Zulu same-sex wedding occurred. And although previously it was liberal churches that had embraced pro-gay theology, now other denominations are either embracing it or silencing God’s word on homosexuality, including evangelicals. Prominent American preacher Rob Bell recently announced, ‘I am for love, whether it’s [between] a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, a man and a man… This is the world that we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are.1 Emerging church pioneer Brian McLaren last year married his son in a same-sex marriage ceremony. This is raising many challenging issues regarding evangelism, church life, and the future of Christian witness.
When it comes to homosexuality, much evangelistic witness has been impeded because of judgementalism and homophobia (real or perceived), and in so many ways churches have ignored those overcoming same-sex attraction. When I was dealing with it in my own life and shared with many pastors and preachers my struggle, I was brushed off, ignored, and even told that the church had no way of helping anyone with the issues I had. I had to swim on my own and get support outside the church or sink. I laboured to understand this because I assumed that the church would be understanding and get behind me (Ps 68:5–6). I felt betrayed and hurt and that my only alternative was to fit in with a Christian type of heterosexuality that I found alienating. This is a very common experience for people of a same-sex background and, understandably, has caused a lot of hurt and alienation. So what is the answer? Is it to change or muffle the word of Scripture on sexuality (e.g. Rom 1:18–32; Gen 2:15–24; Matt 19:4–5; 1 Cor 5:11; 6:9–10; 1 Tim 1:9–10; Jude 7; Rev 21:8)? Is it to enhance the theme of God’s grace at the expense of truth? Or should we react against the world and sit on the sidelines to await the Rapture?
These matters are hard for modern-day evangelical Christians to consider because evangelicalism has at its heart a strong desire for all people to know Jesus as we know him (John 3:16). Christians wish for all to be saved from sin because those without Christ are under God’s righteous curse (John 3:36; 10:10). However, the tragic reality in this world is that the gate to life in Christ is narrow (Matt 7:13) and the way that leads to life is hard (7:14). No changing of God’s word is going to widen that door or make the journey easier, and if we try then we put ourselves in danger of a strict judgment (Rev 21:18; Matt 7:15–23).
But the problem regarding same-sex attraction is bigger because so often we tell ourselves ‘God hates the sin but loves the sinner’ and when we (rightly) articulate that homosexuality is not God’s best for people then we encounter a problem because most gay people2 regard their sexuality and sexual expression as their identity.3 So if Christians say that a gay person’s ‘identity’ is a sin that God hates, then by implication it means that God hates them, which would lead them to question whether God loves the sinner! If this is the case, then how are Christian people to witness to people who believe this?4 The only way to navigate through this is to demonstrate that a person’s identity is not tied up in their sin as a follower of Christ, that in fact living in such sin works against a person’s nature (Rom 1:18–21, 26–27) and hence their best interests. This needs to be shown even if they regard themselves as Christians who also identify as gay and believe dangerously that they can continue living in same-sex sexual relationships. They need to be shown that being truly human is to live for God according to his ways (Ps 119:1–3) by living in faith and obedience (John 10:10;
1 John 1:6, Jas 2:14). That can only happen by renouncing sin, not living in it any more (Rom 6:1–2) because no one can serve two masters. If a person is born again into Christ, she or he has been made righteous and set apart (1 Cor 6:11) so continuing to live in sin is a contradiction of their new nature. This is true for all Christians, regardless of what vice, sin, and folly is in their life and being called to live for Christ and be a godlier person is what the gospel is all about. Adapting to the world, as Rob Bell has demanded the church do, will kill its witness rather than enhance it. But this call must be done in love, humility, openness about the church’s own shortcomings, and an understanding of God’s heart (Ps 34:18).
Once people become Christians, things can get tricky: sins don’t just melt away and although frequent Bible reading, leadership, church attendance, and prayer can be of enormous benefit for those with same-sex attraction, their issues do not simply go away simply by virtue of those good things. Overcoming this issue is not all about ‘praying the gay away’, although it is possible in the case of some like musician Dennis Jernigan that some do experience quick, long-lasting change after a spiritual encounter. Nor is it about throwing up one’s hands and saying, ‘Well, no one can change because no one has and the Bible promises nothing.’ The reality is more complex and dare I say victorious than that. That reality is the middle road, which is to say that change and healing can occur—but, more often than not, it takes a long time.5
Churches really need to get behind those struggling with this issue because their journey is long, hard, and often very very lonely: the world does not understand it and sadly many in church don’t either. Because of that many with same-sex attraction live a private double-life of being saved but still addicted to lust. Advice given to them typically is either to white-knuckle it until they meet God in glory, or are told to just keep asking God for forgiveness without being given accountability and the occasional hard word for backsliding. In my own journey with homosexuality I witnessed both of these extremes and they were disillusioning because the former judged me without giving me any support whatsoever and the latter merely gave me cheap grace that undercut the seriousness of my sin when I was acting out in physical sexual relationships with other men while still going to church. It wasn’t until a minister lovingly, but seriously, rebuked me in accordance with Matthew 18:15–20 that finally I began to see the seriousness of my sin, the frightful hardening of my heart which came with that, the cost it would have on my soul (Heb 2:14–17). It was only then that I finally took my sin to heart and became serious about expunging it from my life.
Yet today if someone is in church and committing sexual sin, what should be done about it? This is related to the question of whether churches should ignore church discipline mechanisms (Matt 18:15–20; 1 Cor 5:5, 11–13; 2 Cor 7:8–11; Gal 6:1) for the sake of keeping people in the church—even if they are flagrantly disobeying God and weakening their kingdom communities. Yes, all sin is equal in God’s sight regarding judgement (1 Cor 6:9–10), but we’re told that sexual sin is worse than other offences (6:18). It—along with greed, drunkenness, idolatry and theft—has enough potential to shipwreck entire churches (5:11, 13) and, like cancer, it will spread through and kill. Instead of hiding church discipline behind well-intentioned truisms like ‘Everybody sins, no one is perfect. It’s okay, just ask God for forgiveness’, it is worth considering discipline and enacting it because it really can save people’s souls—as long as it is done in humility and properly (Gal 6:1; Matt 18:15–20). Why? Because without holiness none will see God (Heb 12:14; Rom 12:1–12), the very same God who is called Jealous and is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29).
Future of Church Witness
Lastly, Christians need to carefully consider how to witness to the world with respect to homosexuality, how to embrace the person without accepting their sin. Few people I know would allow their friends to ransack their house or pop over without permission: indeed, if a friend kept doing that and showed no sign of remorse—even if he did keep saying sorry—why would we stay in fellowship with them? In the same way God operates, loving the person but seeking their good in asking them to hate sin and leave it behind (John 8:11).
Yet Christians today are urged to be worldly and embrace same-sex marriage not, as we’re told, to redefine it but simply to make it more inclusive, because apparently God is love and therefore love is god and love is meant to be blind to its object.
But for Christians to do this, and in particular ministry leaders, is a great sin and the consequences for doing it are unfathomable. Christian folk, as well intentioned as they may be, risk provoking God’s anger by embracing homosexuality in much the same way that Israel did in re-defining marriage in the days of Ezra (Ezra 9:10–15; 10:2–4). Christians can only be who they are and be attractive by maintaining a distinctive witness by faithfully and dutifully proclaiming God’s will for people as defined in Scripture (2 Tim 3:16–17). Yes, it is grace that sets people free from sin and law (Titus 2:11–14), but it must be grace that is grounded in truth, not a blank cheque to keep on sinning. Communicating and practising this is the great challenge facing the church today, as always it has throughout human history.
As Sydney archbishop Peter Jensen recently stated at a ministry training event in Sydney that I attended, the church will lose its distinctive witness the day it no longer reveres the authority of Scripture especially on the issue of homosexuality. The church need not capitulate and teach what people want to hear (2 Tim 4:1–5; 3:1–9; 2 Thess 2:11). It should be the particular prayer of all Christian believers today who love God, his ways, and his word that we continue to do this as a faithful witness both to the world and to those in church who are struggling with same-sex attraction and seem to have all things stacked against their favour.
Haydn Sennitt recently stepped down from leading Liberty Christian Ministries (www.libertychristianministries.org.au) in Sydney, to focus on his studies at Morling College. He is married with two daughters. He has shared God’s work in his life in mainstream media and has been published at the Gospel Coalition and in Christianity Today.
1 ‘Rob Bell on Gay Marriage Support: God Pulling Us Ahead to Affirm Gay Brothers, Sisters’, ChristianPost, 22 March 2013 (www.christianpost.com/news/rob-bell-on-gay-marriage-support-god-pulling-us-ahead-to-affirm-gay-brothers-sisters-92395). Tellingly, popular preacher Joel Osteen has denounced gay marriage as unbiblical, saying, ‘You know…it’s a fine line. We’re for everybody. But of course as a Christian pastor, my base is off what I believe the Scripture says. Marriage is between a male and female… I think we have to be compassionate about it all [but] when I’ve come back to the Scripture, as much as I am for everybody, I don’t see same-sex [marriage] in the Scripture’ (www.christianpost.com/news/joel-osteen-im-for-everybody-but-same-sex-marriage-is-not-in-the-bible-92920).
2 This is even seen among those who regard themselves as ‘gay Christians’. At some point in their journey they either will choose an identity in Christ that is grounded in God’s word or renounce Christ and embrace homosexuality (Matt 6:24).
3 The gay community has often articulated gay marriage as a right. This has been predicated on the assumption that their being gay is the same as an African being black—they are simply born with it and to reject their life choices is to discriminate against them and a core part of ‘who they are’. This is despite no actual proven biological evidence confirming that anyone is born gay (see www.mygenes.co.nz). Nonetheless, the ‘born gay’ argument has proven successful in both recruiting people into the gay lifestyle (if someone believes they are born that way then they have no choice but to live it) and to elicit public sympathy and demand rights. Yet not everyone in the gay community believes this (www.news.com.au/entertainment/celebrity/newly-bald-cynthia-nixon-angers-gay-community-says-homosexuality-a-choice/story-e6frfmqi-1226253451895).
4 Although this is a prominent issue when witnessing to GBLT people, it is also true when witnessing to other people groups. For instance, if being a true Indian is seen as being someone who practices Hinduism, then you encounter the same problem when doing evangelism in India!
5 In 2 Chronicles 35, the boy king Josiah launched a program of reforming Israel. From the time he started to the climax of that healing, it took him 18 long years (35:19)! There is nothing wrong with expecting miracles, but often they take longer than most would like and not according to man-made schedules (Isa 5:18–19). Lasting change is possible, but it goes with a lot of hard work (Matt 7:14).