As the father of five, I’ve already had to have “the talk” with two of our kids. I’ll do the same again for our next rising middle-schooler this summer. It is uncomfortable and awkward for both parties, no doubt. But it’s necessary if they’re to avoid the pitfalls and dangers of our hyper-sexualized, permissive society. Pastors, it’s time to have the talk with our churches too.
Every Mainline church has been brought to the point of schism over sex. It has proven to be the tip of the proverbial iceberg -and the tipping point – of much larger differences between those on opposing sides of the debate. This is not to say that the debate about Christian sexual morality and the definition of marriage is insignificant. The tip of the iceberg is still part of the iceberg, and is significant enough it has proven able to sink the ship of even the largest Mainline denominations, including the United Methodist Church.
I don’t think we got to this point because the church has talked about it too much. We got here through one little compromise at a time over the course of many decades. Silence to avoid controversy has contributed to the build up of danger that has been lurking in the dark waters underneath all along.
We’re not in danger of hitting the iceberg that will lead to schism; we already hit it. We have been at least two churches pretending to be one for a while now. The ship hasn’t sunk, but it is taking on water. God will provide a rescue boat, but we have to be prepared to board it when it arrives. Pastors, it is time to prepare your churches. We have to have the talk.
I’m not happy about any of this. The division is heartbreaking. I weep, quite literally, for the church in which I was baptized, confirmed, and will soon be ordained, the Lord willing. After wandering away from the Lord, and the church, sinning egregiously, developing an alcohol problem that was dangerous to me and others, dabbling into drugs, being sexually promiscuous, and getting involved in a cult in college, by the grace of God, I came home to the Lord, and returned to the church and denomination of my upbringing. I renewed my baptismal vows and, among other things, I once again committed to “do all in [my] power to strengthen its ministries.”
There have been times when I seriously doubted – very seriously – whether I could remain in the denomination in good conscience. Nevertheless, I decided if I was to remain, I would do my best to fulfill that vow by speaking the truth in love to the best of my ability. My ability may not be much, but, by the grace and mercy of God, I have tried. I have committed myself to being as open with my congregations as I can be about what is going on in the denomination and why. It has not been easy. But I believe it is necessary. The time for beating around the bush has passed – not that there really ever was one. Having the talk is uncomfortable and awkward for the preacher and the congregation. But it has to be done, and we’ve got to get started somewhere. So where do we begin?
(Re)Introduce People to the Triune God of the Bible
Recent research led by the Barna Group indicates very few professing Christians actually have a Bibical worldview. We must help our congregations get reacquainted with the God of the Bible, who revealed himself most fully in Jesus of Nazareth. This can be hard. A couple of years ago one young woman, who grew up in a UM church, after participating in a Bible study which was designed to get people reading through the entire Bible, admitted that she wasn’t too sure whether she really liked the God of the Bible, which she was reading through for the first time in her life. The portrait of God in the pages of Scripture challenged her conception of a god that is the essence of non-judgmental niceness.
As is typical, she first thought it was just the way God is depicted in the Old Testament, but soon realized that the seemingly overly harsh judgment of God doesn’t really go away in the New Testament, even with the preaching of Jesus. She discovered that in many ways the preaching of Jesus about coming judgment only intensified the matter. She found no quarter in Acts, which early on tells the story of a married couple being struck dead for attempting to deceive (Acts 5), or in the writings of Paul, the other epistles, and certainly not in Revelation. Of course, God graciously and mercifully offers a way to escape judgment, but not by promising there will be none.
A few years ago I caught a news report of some type of a nudist group parading around New York City. A reporter asked one of the marchers, who was blurred out on screen by the way, why she was marching. When he asked about whether she thought what they were doing might be questionable morally, she revealed that she considered herself a Christian, but she said, “God doesn’t judge, so neither should we.”
So many churches, even in the evangelical world, have been so steeped in a conception of God as the ultimate “nice” guy, who just wants us to be comfortable with who we are, however we are, at least in terms of culturally fashionable sins, that they are shocked and even appalled by God as actually depicted in Scripture. So we have to begin addressing the idol in the room. This idol represents what Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton identified in 2005 as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). It is an unofficial religion that has inundated many modern churches in recent times, although it has roots and variants that go back a long way in the American church. At its core, however, it is hostile and inimical to Biblical Christianity. (Look here for a little more about MTD)
Once while delivering a sermon on the Trinity, I contrasted orthodox views with those of Jehovah’s Witnesses and some other groups. After the service, a gentleman in his eighties approached me and said that it was “un-Christian” of me to disparage the views of other people because who are we to say we are right and others are wrong. The irony was not lost on me that I was being told I was wrong for saying I believed Jehovah’s Witnesses were wrong about Jesus, although it was lost on him. Nonetheless, we must persist and preach and teach about the Triune God who is revealed in Scripture, Old and New Testaments, as,
“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but will by no means clear the guilty …” (Exodus 34:7 ESV)
We have to address the idols in the room. And remember, Paul shows in Romans 1 that idolatry is the ground from which the poison berries of sexual immorality grows.
Now, Let’s Talk about Sex
We have to talk about the MTD idol in the room; we also have to talk about the elephant in the room that has brought us to the point of schism. In the past I was squeamish at evening uttering the three letter word that begins with s and ends with x from the pulpit. Semi-jokingly – very semi at first – I would actually say it that way rather than fully enunciate the word. But to avoid the topic altogether is ministerial malpractice. What people don’t know can hurt them.
The church should have been fully engaged in the conversation, but for the most part we took a back seat to the culture that has driven us off the cliff. Some will say that the church has talked about this too much, but even some of the most conservative evangelical pastors will tell you that they have not addressed it from the pulpit in a very thorough way, if at all. Rev. Dr. Chris Ritter, a leading United Methodist evangelical, said he has only preached on the topic of homosexuality from the pulpit one time in 28 years of ministry, and only then because people were asking. I’ve heard many others say the same. I asked a close friend and a member of another UM church a couple years ago if they were having any conversations about the controversy over sexuality in the church. She quickly responded, “Oh no, we don’t talk about it, because we would never want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”
One lifelong and very gifted lay member in another area, who decided to leave the UMC not that long ago said, “In 40 years in the UMC I can not recall any serious mention of sexual ethics, other than in the youth Sunday school class I taught for a time when I taught it. There were a few vague references to traditonal marriage or the like, but that’s it.” He said he was saddened, but also incredibly frustrated by the silence. There are many other gifted laity who have left their churches or who refused to support the churches financially because UMC leadership never seemed to take a clear stand one way or another.
One former member of one of the churches I served said he drove all the way to UM offices in D.C. to try to get some straight answers, but was not given the time of day. Frustrated he left for another denomination, and wrote an op-ed in the local paper explaining why. I know for a fact we have lost church members on the progressive side of the debate as well because of the dithering. Time for dithering is running short. Sooner or later everyone is going to have to make a decision one way another. The liberal Baptist scholar, David Gushee, recognizes this reality.
“I now believe that incommensurable differences in understanding the very meaning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the interpretation of the Bible, and the sources and methods of moral discernment, separate many of us from our former brethren — and that it is best to name these differences clearly and without acrimony, on the way out the door.
I also believe that attempting to keep the dialogue going is mainly fruitless. The differences are unbridgeable.” http://religionnews.com/2017/05/09/changing-our-mind-still-christian/
The time to stop dithering is now. I just saw where another very frustrated lay person asked: “Why are our pastors not talking about these things?!” It’s time to address the controversy head-on and clearly. But how?
Although some who know me would find it hard to believe, I have never delivered a sermon where the sole focus was on homosexuality. But I have not shied away from talking about Christian sexual morality and what constitutes sexual immorality in general. But I endeavor not to single anyone out. I approach it from the positive prescription and beauty of God’s design for human sexuality according to Jesus, which is celibacy in singleness and fidelity in the lifelong covenant union of a man and a woman called marriage (Mark 10/Matt 19). I state that this is God’s will for humanity and that any sexual expression outside of those God-given parameters is sin and harmful to self, neighbor, church, and community.
You have to start somewhere, and that seems to me a good place to start. Virtually everyone within earshot will recognize that they are falling short or have fallen short of God’s standard in some way. We should never single out one particular expression of sexual sin, or in any way hold up any particular set of temptations to condemnation while ignoring others. We should also call everyone to repentance and proclaim the good news of forgiveness in Christ and empowerment for a holy life of self-denial through the Spirit. I think we should only talk about homosexuality in the context of sexual sin in general, even if we do deliver a message focused mainly on that topic. (See a good example of how Rev. Chris Ritter addressed the topic in a sermon here)
We should also be clear that all are welcome in the church regardless of their past, or how they may currently be struggling with temptation to sin sexually in any way, except in extreme cases of abuse. I once had someone express concerns about a person teaching in the church who supposedly had in the past engaged in same-sex relationships. I refused to treat that person differently than I would expect myself to be treated for the past sexual sin I engaged in with the opposite sex. I also refused to treat people any differently because of the particular way they may be tempted sexually than I would expect to be treated because of the ways I am tempted sexually. As long as people love the Lord and seek to live according to God’s will without insisting on creating special exemptions for themselves or rejecting certain moral commandments they should be welcome to fully participate in the worship and ministries of the church.
There should be no special sanctions, but also no special exemptions. Nonetheless, we must address the issue of homosexuality specifically from time to time. As it is the presenting issue that has caused so much controversy for so long that has led to actual schism we must address it head-on, if ever, now.
Many in our congregations will wonder if people don’t choose their sexual-orientation, in other words, if they are “born that way”, then how can we say that homosexuality is wrong. Young people who got their theology from Lady Gaga, and older people, who watch the nightly news or Oprah or Dr. Phil, may actually believe that people are born with a homosexual orientation like people are born with a certain eye color, sex, race, or ethnicity. Indeed, these are the most prevalent comparisons, but they are false. We must point out that even the American Psychological Association, although they are in full support of the LGBTQI+ movement, admits that there is no consensus among scientists as to the cause of homosexual or bisexual orientations and no particular factor or factors, including a genetic one, has been discovered to explain it.
The truth is any particular set of sexual desires is best explained in comparison to other sexual desires. Comparisons to sex/gender (although how convoluted has this become now!), race, and any other obviously immutable biological trait, like eye color, is misleading at best. Of course no one chooses their desires, but we do have a choice about whether or not to act on them. Who is prepared to say all one’s desires must of necessity be acted upon?
In the UMC, the debate has centered around the topic of homosexuality, primarily because of the specific language in the Book of Discipline regarding “the practice of homosexuality” being “incompatible with Christian teaching” and the other restrictions regarding marriage and ordination. But the truth is it involves so much more. During recent demonstrations during the judicial council hearing, one group there to protest the church’s official position and to show support for Karen Oliveto, the woman married to another woman, who was elected Bishop by the Western Jurisdiction despite church law, held up a sign saying they support “LGBTQ+ Ordination.” Rev. Tom Berlin, who considers himself a moderate UM, recently clarified his support for full LGBTQ+ inclusion, specifically acknowledging the addition of the Q and the PLUS to the conversation.
We haven’t really had an open and honest debate about the L and the G, much less the implications of the B, T, & Q. And what about that + ?!! What all is included in that?
You can imagine that the folks who have discovered dozens and dozens of different gender expressions within that T, will find an exponential number of sexual orientations to pour into that plus! If it is wrong to expect those attracted to the same sex to not act on their desires, how can we expect it of those with other unchosen sexual desires? It’s naïve to believe there will be contentment with monogamy as some would have us believe. I personally know ministers who think it is unfair that only married clergy can have sex. I doubt they are few.
Before I became a pastor, one UM pastor in my area said he believed what the Bible says about sexual morality is antiquated. The truth is the ancient teaching of the Bible about sex is no more ancient than the updated versions of ancient pagan sexual practices the Bible condemns in the Old and New Testaments. If you take the ideas of the famed sexologist of Indiana University, Alfred Kinsey, and compare them to the unbridled sexuality that God prohibits in Leviticus 18 and what was practiced among the ancient Greeks and Romans, you won’t find much difference (see “Sexual Sabatoge” 2010 by Judith Reisman).
I’m not arguing a slippery slope, I’m saying we are already at the bottom of the slide with the LGBTQ+(PLUS!) movement, and it was all in the seed planted by Kinsey like a time-bomb to begin with. So we should talk about this broader context as well. What all are we really being pushed to accept? If you think the gender controversy, for example, is just about bathrooms for transgenders, you don’t understand the larger agenda. Even at the last General Conference of the UMC, the instructions given to all delegates included “do not assume anyone’s gender identity, even if you have met them in the past” and to ask everyone what pronouns they prefer: he, she, or something else (p. 39). Try that at your church this Sunday!
Don’t fall for the misleading way these things are often framed narrowly. Put the conversation back within the framework of the bigger picture. We are not really just talking about homosexuality.
Is it Really that Serious?
There are a couple reason why some won’t see why this should be taken so seriously. One is some see Christianity as their preferred self-help program (MTD), but not something that really has eternal implications. Sadly some choose their wardrobe with more care than they choose the church they attend. Others will continue to argue that what we think about sexual morality is a secondary issue at best and that we can and should just agree to disagree, which will ultimately lead to a tacit acceptance of behavior that the Bible repeatedly warns if practiced in a willful and unrepentant fashion will exclude one from the kingdom of God (i.e. 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21; Eph 5:3-11; Rev 21:8). It just doesn’t make sense to treat behavior that could potentially land someone in hell as an indifferent matter. A lot of our pastors and theologians are really universalists though.
Others will continue to argue that the issue is not all that clear. If that is really the case then all the more reason to stick with the traditional teaching of the church until there is clarity. But I have never heard anyone who insists that the Bible is unclear say that. They always seem to argue in favor of changing the teaching of the church. They misuse “mystery” and “uncertainty” as a license to condone what the church has always called sin until the sexual revolution of the 1960’s.
As I have shown before, others will argue that the Bible is clear, but say we just know better today and deem the Bible wrong. You have to admire their honesty if not their hubris. There are some pretty prominent names in this category such as Luke Timothy Johnson, and Walter Brueggemann. William Loader, who has written thousands of pages on ancient Jewish and Christian beliefs about sex also acknowledges that in all cases homosexual practices of any kind were considered “abhorrent” (p. 146 “Making Sense of Sex” 2013). Loader just believes the modern understanding of sexual orientation renders the Bible’s restrictions obsolete, or “antiquated” as the UM pastor mentioned above said. I think he underestimates the understanding of the ancients and overestimates the understanding of modern western progressives.
At any rate, this is essentially what UM pastor, Adam Hamilton argues. He says, contra 2 Timothy 3:16-17, there are some passages of the Bible that never were inspired by God, among them the passages prohibiting homosexuality. Similar to Brueggemann, he argues that some of the Bible does not reflect the heart and character of God revealed in Jesus, and should therefore be ignored. Listen to the way Brueggemann puts it:
“It’s not a matter of obeying the Bible — it’s about obeying the gospel. The gospel is about God’s saving love that wants to restore all of humanity to full communion. To reach back to an ancient text that has now been corrected by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is simply a bad maneuver and poor methodology and theologically irresponsible. Those texts are not the determinative texts.” (emphasis mine)
Too bad the apostles and authors of the New Testament missed that “corrective” revelation in Christ! What he and those like Hamilton and Johnson, have done is to create a cannon within the cannon to nullify the commandments they don’t like. They have created a tradition with a truncated notion of the gospel and a partial and, therefore, distorted, image of Jesus they use, in the words of Luke Timothy Johnson, to “reject the straightforward commands of Scripture.” In response I can imagine the actual Jesus of the Gospels saying something like, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God to establish your tradition” (Mark 7:9 ESV). The people in the pews deserve to know what they are really being asked to do.
We are really back to where we started: idolatry. Ultimately in order to justify behavior Scripture clearly condemns, people must create their own traditions that nullify the commandments of God (see Mark 7:13), and thereby carve out their own idol of a Jesus without judgment, who is acceptable to the world. You can’t really fiddle with the commandments against sexual immorality without fudging on the commandment against idolatry.
Pastors, it really is time to have the talk. And sex really is just the tip of the iceberg. Be gracious. But be truthful. Get informed and inform, and pray for you and your congregation to be transformed by the renewal of the mind (Rom 12:2). Your efforts will be greatly appreciated by some, not so much by others. You will face resistance. And you will be tempted to remain silent. But if we are going to prepare people for the rescue boat that God sends we must resist that temptation and speak the truth in love.
“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
Ephesians 4:11-16 NIV