Sexual identity and behavior often dominate our cultural conversation. It’s also a subject that leaves many Christians wondering how to respond. A purely cultural understanding of sexuality leads some to conclude, “Who am I to judge?” while believers who have a better understanding of God’s design for sexuality sometimes keep quiet for fear of offending others. But these hands-off approaches are at odds with Scripture.
With this tension in mind, last year’s General Assembly offered two seminars on sexual sin. In a seminar titled “Sexual Confusion in the Church: Becoming a Welcoming Church While Remaining Biblical,” Tim Geiger, Harvest USA executive director, presented practical ways the church can respond to sexual brokenness. Geiger also participated in a panel discussion with David Strain and Allan Edwards called “Sexual Brokenness in a Fallen World.” Strain is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi; Edwards pastors Kiski Valley Presbyterian Church near Pittsburgh.
Both Geiger and Edwards have dealt with same-sex attraction personally, and both have learned to walk in repentance. Strain grew up in an unbelieving household with a brother who identifies as gay.
“We must say hard things without pulling our punches. If I say something hard and weighty, I ought to have affections that correspond to it.” – David Strain
Disordered Heart Desires
While it isn’t clear how many believers wrestle with same-sex attraction and other sexual sins, it is clear that sexual brokenness is pervasive, even in the church. A question, then, addressed in both seminars, was: How can the church be a nurturing place for the sexually broken without compromising the truth of the Gospel?
It starts with a biblical understanding of God’s purpose for sex, Geiger says. Which, to be fulfilled, requires that sex be between a man and a woman in the bonds of marriage. As Geiger pointed out, sexual sin — including same-sex attraction, improper heterosexual attraction, and pornography — is rooted in something deeper than sex. It is a selfishness problem. Disordered desires, then, always lead people to pursue good things the wrong way, he said. For example, our culture celebrates the lie that sexual desires are merely biological, and that acting on them has no outside consequences.
There are, in reality, serious consequences. And for believers to accommodate the culture’s view, they, like so many of their contemporaries, must view others as nothing more than a means to an end: “a way for me to get what I want,” Geiger said. The Apostle Paul warns against this in Galatians 5:15: “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.”
“We do damage to God’s intention when we say that [sexual desires] are merely biological,” said Geiger. “The Lord tells us there is no way we can engage in sin and not damage our ability to understand God and be in relationship with Him and others.” Disordered sexual desires thus subvert the truth about God, man, and Scripture. Ultimately, they are a way for humans to declare autonomy from God.
Truth, Grace, Compassion
With so much at stake, the church’s response must be clear, true, and gracious. Just as Scripture shows Jesus breaking bread with sinners, entering their homes, and declaring, “I have come to show mercy,” the church should do the same.
When a believer has adopted a mistaken understanding of sexuality or is engaged in sexual sin, fellow believers must lovingly engage. Geiger pointed out that Christians too often retreat and “agree to disagree,” but we must be willing to have difficult conversations.
Our tone matters, said Strain. Using truth to bludgeon the sinner is not loving. “We must say hard things without pulling our punches,” Strain argued, but, “if I say something hard and weighty, I ought to have affections that correspond to it. I can’t point out the sin [without pointing] out the glorious hope of grace and mercy we have in Jesus. There ought to be corresponding affections that communicate the message.”
Edwards experienced this firsthand when he went to Harvest USA more than a decade ago. For years he fought feelings of same-sex attraction; then he tried to reconcile homosexuality with Scripture. Then, after concluding that he could not escape the Bible’s truth, Edwards felt hopeless.
Geiger saw things differently. He told Edwards that there was indeed hope for him. He explained to Edwards that his problem was a sin problem, and Edwards needed to practice walking in faith and repentance. Daily obedience, Geiger said, was God’s call on Edwards’ life.
For years, Edwards believed his sin was fundamentally different from other sins and that he was beyond hope. And while Scripture makes it clear that sexual sin is serious — Paul said it is sinning against one’s own body — it is by no means unforgivable. “When [Geiger] told me that my problem involved repentance, I was angry,” Edwards said. But then he realized it “was the best news I’d heard. It meant the Gospel spoke to my struggle too.”
Often the church does put sexual sin in a different category. And in one sense, it is. Every Christian covets. We’ve all been guilty of stealing, bearing false witness, and failing to keep the Sabbath. But fewer of us wrestle with same-sex attraction. It’s hard, therefore, to identify with those who do, and it’s tough to empathize.
Yet, says Geiger, for the church to welcome sexual sinners, it must be a community of grace where sinful people hear truth in the context of caring relationships, and where they learn that sexual sin isn’t unforgivable.
Geiger identifies the characteristics of a redemptive community: speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:13-16), bearing one another’s burdens, gently restoring those who sin (Galatians 6:1-2), and focusing on Jesus (Colossians 1:15-20).
The broader culture deceives people with powerful narratives of how certain sexual behaviors lead to freedom, while repressing such desires leads to misery. The church, Geiger said, can reclaim the power of stories to share how the Gospel frees people from the bondage of sin.
Our own stories are a good place to start. It’s powerful, says Geiger, when we talk about how God has worked in our lives. The Spirit uses our stories to illustrate for others how God might work in their lives as well. What’s more, a community of grace and repentance requires honesty. Believers should talk about where they are struggling and how they are trying to fill their ultimate needs apart from Jesus.
If we say we’re transparent, Strain says, we had better be transparent. “And that’s not easy. Creating a culture where people can be honest is challenging.”
Pastors as Lead Repenters
It’s never enough to say “stop,” Geiger says. One sin will simply replace another until we deal with the underlying heart issue. For that to happen, Geiger believes, the pastor must be committed to “a lifestyle of repentance” (1 Peter 5:1-3). A pastor should be willing to talk about his own sin and repentance appropriately in the context of church ministry.
Edwards agrees. “Repentance must begin in the house of God,” he says. “If the church desires to see sinners come to Christ, the church must model confession and repentance.”
It is only then, Geiger believes, that we turn sinners to Jesus.
Those Outside the Church
We must speak the truth in love to those outside the church as well, which means we need relationships with them. Geiger points to the example of author Rosaria Butterfield, a former lesbian who found faith and repentance through relationships with faithful believers.
God worked in Butterfield’s life through relationship, Geiger said. And her story shows us why and how we need to develop friendships with people outside the church. These relationships can never be “projects,” Geiger warns, “because you can’t control the outcome. You have to trust that to the Holy Spirit.”
Ultimately, Strain adds, pastors can engage those outside the church by faithfully performing their duties inside the church. “Preach the Gospel. Stay in the Word. Explain the text with joy. Be passionate about Jesus. Live in a manner that is consistent with the text.”