Off and on over the last seven months I spent time preparing for the message I delivered at New Life yesterday morning. In some ways it was one of the more important messages in my 12 years at the church because I wanted to frame our church's approach to sexuality in a way that was gracious, truthful, thoughtful, and biblical. I think it's possible to be all of those things, and yesterday may have been the most challenging attempt at bringing all of those together as we talked about homosexuality, Christianity, and getting past the labels that we either take for ourselves or have given to us.
My hope was to move us past the dialogue (arguments) that are framed by the sexual identity story which means that we should take an identity label for ourselves based largely on one small slice of who we are. A sexual preference is not enough to define any one person. On the whole, churches and Christian leaders have missed the opportunities to talk about homosexuality from a gracious standpoint because we have been too concerned with switching labels on the outside, rather than with allowing God's grace to do what God's grace always does: take broken human beings and redeem them through Christ's sacrifice into sons and daughters. I wanted to be careful to talk about homosexuality within the context of broken humanity, and also to remind us that God's design for sexuality from the creation was for male and female in a covenant relationship which is not only about companionship, but about the completion of the creation.
In the context of the gospel, the labels "homosexual" and "heterosexual" don't really mean anything. What matters is that we are all broken human beings in need of Christ's redemption. Here are the last three paragraphs from my notes yesterday which I offer here as a summary of the message yesterday. Following that are some of the resources I found helpful and which you may find helpful in exploring this topic further.
It is a mistake to buy into the idea that same sex attraction, orientation and identity are all one and the same. There are people who experience same sex attraction but never identify themselves with the labels. The question for the church is whether or not we can get past the labels and start treating people with grace and dignity. I’m convinced that by collapsing all of these together, the church is not giving the person who wrestles with same sex desire any other alternative – they either have to pray the desires away, or they have to embrace the gay identity. What if we could offer a different story to tell of a person who experiences same sex attractions, but submits those to Christ’s work of shaping his character to reflect God’s glory?
The goal of God’s redemption is not the elimination of sexual desire, but that sexual desire would come under our desire for Christ. In that context celibacy can be a completely valid expression of submission to Christ – not just denial of sexual desire, but of total fulfillment in Christ. The end result of our entire life is to be delivered up for God’s glory through Christ who has redeemed us for his praise. The goal for us in the church should not be that we “re-orient” a homosexual person, but that we re-orient our entire lives towards Christ and his glory, and allow that vision and desire to swallow up every other desire.
Everything I have said today has been primarily geared towards a person who is following Jesus. We in the church need to have this discussion in a way that allows us to be both gracious and truthful. I hope that if you are not a follower of Jesus and you’ve listened closely today you have heard those two clearly. When we talk to people who are not following Jesus, the goal is never to start by addressing particular sins, and homosexuality is one that we stumble over quite quickly. Rather the goal is to address the gospel, the redemption of broken human beings through Christ, which changes not only our sexual identity, but our human identity so that what we have in common is Christ overwhelming our brokenness, no matter what label the world puts on it.
- Mark Yarhouse, Homosexuality and the Christian. This was one of the most helpful books for me in sorting through some of the more technical aspects of research on the topic of homosexuality and which really helped me frame out how a pastor and a church could respond to this topic.
- Jenell Williams Paris, The End of Sexual Identity. This book was extremely helpful in understanding the development of the sexual identity framework, and helped move me towards the "broken human" identity concept that was so central to the message.
- Andrew Marin, Love is an Orientation. I should confess I didn't read this book only because I didn't have time before putting the message together, but I believe it would be a very valuable resource, and is on my list to order with my next round of books.
- Interview with Jennell Williams Paris on the invention of sexual identity: http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Invention-of-Homosexuality-and-Heterosexuality-Jenell-Paris-Veritas-Riff-10-03-2011.html
- Relevant Magazine article on prevalence of pre-marital sex among Evangelical Christians: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/life/relationship/features/28337-the-secret-sexual-revolution
- I referenced nationally known speaker Dan Savage and his comments about the Bible at a national convention for high school journalists. You can find an article, with related video, here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/under-god/post/dan-savage-offends-with-comments-on-christainity/2012/04/30/gIQAhzIVsT_blog.html
- And, in fairness, here's the story with video of the North Carolina pastor whose hateful sermon got national publicity: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/05/22/video-of-north-carolina-pastors-plan-to-get-rid-of-gays-goes-viral/
- Remember – both of those links are examples of our tendency to make caricatures of either side, and a failure to look for a middle way.
- One of my favorite speakers, Matt Chandler, addressed this topic at The Village Church in Texas:
There are other resources that helped me along the way, but these are several of the ones that were most important to me in the process. I hope you find those helpful, and that you'll keep being willing to think deeply about the Scriptures, sexuality, and finding a way forward for each broken human being towards the fullness of Christ's redemption.