As gay lifestyles and same-sex marriage march relentlessly toward social acceptance, PCA leaders and congregations face a quandary: how to stand firm on biblical teachings about homosexuality without alienating people who desperately need Jesus. Many in the PCA insist that the question can no longer be ignored.

John Freeman, president and founder of Harvest USA, an organization that works with sexually broken people, recalled speaking with a pastor who insisted that homosexuality wasn’t an issue for his congregation. During the next 18 months, six young people in the church “came out” as gay. There was sharp disagreement over how the church responded, and a number of families left in anger.

Freeman has been attending the PCA General Assembly for more than 25 years. During that time, he says, scores of elders have come to him — heads hung low —hoping to talk privately about their own struggles, including same-sex attraction. “Typically I’m the first person they’ve confided in,” he says. “They often confess … in tears.”

For Shayne Wheeler, pastor of All Souls Fellowship (PCA) in Decatur, Ga., an Atlanta suburb, the topic of same-sex attraction, same-sex marriage, the church, and Jesus is an everyday reality. “To live in Decatur, you can’t not interact with gays,” he said.

With the suburb’s sizable homosexual population, Wheeler noted, “same-sex marriage [isn’t] an issue. They stopped debating that 10 years ago; here it’s a civil rights issue, and gays believe they have the same rights as heterosexuals. My three kids all have friends that have lesbian moms.”

For Wheeler, the challenge is finding the balance between standing for what God says and at the same time treating gays like everyone else — human beings worthy of love and respect and created in God’s image. “They are sinners, just like all of us,” Wheeler says.

In his book, “The Briarpatch Gospel,” Wheeler offers poignant stories about his interactions with gays and same-sex couples during his years at All Souls. During one conversation he told a homosexual attendee at his church, “Your being gay doesn’t put you into some special category of sinner. It just means you struggle to follow Jesus, just like I do. You and I are both called to conform our lives to the righteousness of Christ, and you and I are both going to fail miserably at times. But I am willing to walk that road with you for as long as it takes.”

Tim Geiger, Harvest USA executive director, notes that cultural attitudes have changed at “warp speed.” There’s an urgent need, he says, to respond biblically, but without sending an unintended message. People should know that the PCA is safe for anyone who’s looking for Jesus.

“Attitudes are changing especially fast among younger adults, even in the PCA,” Geiger said. He estimates that roughly 70 percent of young people in the PCA (under age 30) don’t have a biblical view of homosexuality. Their attitude is, “Who am I to tell someone else who they can love?” Freeman explains that their sociology now interprets and defines their theology about homosexuality rather than the other way around.

Sexuality and Personhood

Ellen Dykas, Harvest USA women’s ministry coordinator, notes that in our culture, “gay identity, sexual identity, and sexual orientation have taken on a life of their own. They now define our personhood, who we are as people.

“We need to reframe the conversation by differentiating between desire and identity. For example, someone might say, ‘I’m a gay Christian.’ To reframe it, we must realize someone’s identity is based on things like ‘being in Christ’ or ‘not in Christ,’ or being a male image bearer or female image bearer. That’s how the Bible describes us on the level of personhood and identity. The idea that our emotions, romantic feelings, sexual and sensual attractions, and desires define us is found nowhere in the Bible.”

Dykas recalled meeting with a PCA leader’s daughter who was struggling with sexual sin. “She said to me, ‘Covenant children aren’t supposed to struggle with these things!’ How did this young woman get the idea we’re not supposed to struggle? God has told us we will struggle and suffer in this life. For the married person, it might be a difficult marriage. For the single person, it might be a long road of singleness. For the person who contends with same-sex attraction, it might be to resist temptation while walking faithfully according to God’s Word.”

How can the PCA uphold biblical teachings without excluding so many who need the good news of Jesus Christ? Freeman says we need to address all issues of sexuality openly, candidly, and compassionately, and we need to educate ourselves about how to come alongside and minister to those who struggle.

“We start with the Gospel and explain God’s design for sex, and then we explain — compassionately and kindly — that every expression of sexuality outside of His plan misses the mark.” We want to let people know that God is pro-sex, Freeman says. Otherwise, we’ll become known as the ‘that’s bad, that’s sin, you shouldn’t do that’ denomination.

It’s important to demonstrate that we’re not fragile about these things, Freeman continues. We want to convey that the Gospel is for all fallen sinners, especially those who struggle with sex and whose families have suffered. What’s more, we’ve got to stop acting like these are somebody else’s issues. One way or another we all struggle with sexual sin — redeemed and unredeemed alike.

So we need to explain what the Bible says and we need to provide a place where people can talk. We need a place where people can express their confusion, where they can be open about these highly charged issues. “I don’t know of many churches that provide that,” Freeman stated.

It’s now time for a missional approach to the gay community, Freeman says, one that demonstrates the truth that all God’s image bearers are worthy of respect — no matter how marred the image.

“To tell people the truth without loving them isn’t loving. And to love them without telling them the truth, that isn’t loving either. We need to do both.”

For more information visit harvestusa.org.