Follow Jesus in the LGBT+ ConversationBy Darrell Yoder on December 14, 2017
For the last several weeks, we have been recapping the Fall 2017 conference on "Loving LGBT+ People with the Gospel." If you missed the previous recap posts, you can check out sessions one, two, three and four.
Today, I want to give a few highlights from the final session of the conference—a panel discussion with Dr. Preston Sprinkle, Laurie Krieg, Matt Krieg, Pastor Marvin Williams and Dr. Gerald Longjohn (moderator). The goal of the panel discussion was to wrestle with the practical implications of this conversation. Pastor Williams provided a valuable pastor's perspective based on his experience of moving from silence to humble action in the LGBT+ conversation. Here are a few of the themes that stood out to me.
The Heart of a Shepherd
Several points of conversation centered around shepherding people well. That includes shepherding LGBT+ people, but it's also about shepherding those who are uncomfortable with this conversation. Often, fears come to the surface when we begin to speak about sexuality and make space for LGBT+ people in the church. Some may be afraid of compromising Scripture as they affirm love, and others may be afraid of compromising love as they affirm Scripture.
Pastor Marvin commented that the beauty of being a pastor is that we are called to shepherd, which means being close enough to people to have this conversation. At times, a shepherd reassures people of God's love, and at other times a shepherd challenges their views or their attitudes. We need to have mutual, respectful relationships with people in order to do either of these things, and that includes mutual, respectful relationships with LGBT+ people.
How do we cultivate these relationships? Laurie Krieg shared that if we want to build these kinds of relationships with people, we need to "look at the planks in our own eyes" first, and then engage people with humility, kindness and hospitality. In other words, if we want to talk to people about their sin, we need to be willing to talk about our own sin. Ultimately, Laurie argued, our sexuality isn't the primary issue, but rather our relationship with God. That's the primary issue for all of us, regardless of our particular struggle, be it sexuality, pornography, self-righteousness, anger, or greed. Our relationship with God matters most, and we cannot cultivate meaningful relationships when we see people primarily through the lens of their specific sin.
A shift needs to take place in our heart towards people who are gay/same-sex attracted or who struggle with their gender identity. As Preston argued in session one, we can make that shift without changing our theology on sexuality and marriage.
Pastor Marvin shared how this has worked in his own life and ministry. He shared the story of a man who had lived in a same-sex relationship for 12 years. When his partner died, he came to Marvin's church to process the loss, the pain and the grief. The first response he got was not rejection but rather love and grace, so he continued to attend. Eventually, as he heard the gospel and saw the genuineness of the church, he gave his life to Christ and joined a men's group. He continues to be gay (i.e. the same-sex attraction hasn't gone away), but he has chosen to be celibate in order to surrender that area of his life to the Lordship of Jesus.
At one point along the way, Marvin said this man came into his office and shared his story. It was important for him to be heard and known without being condemned, and to be embraced in his pain. He needed to be hugged and cared for. On the other side of the relationship, the key for Marvin was to allow this man's story to "actually transform me and to let him see that transformation take place…it was a watershed moment for me." Today, the man has been celibate for 15 years, and they stay in close contact, continuing to learn from each other and helping each other.
That's the kind of humble posture we need to embrace if we want to love LGBT+ people—or anyone!—with the gospel. We all need watershed moments that make issues relational.
The panel discussed a number of other topics, and I recommend taking the 56 minutes to listen to the whole discussion. Preston Sprinkle addressed a question on Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 5:11 about associating with unrepentant Christians, the panel commented on the Nashville Statement (which Preston has responded to in some detail here), and they discussed officiating and attending same-sex weddings.
The last theme I want to highlight here, though, is the need to embrace a missional or missionary mindset in this conversation. This can feel risky, but it's vital if we want to love people well. Matt Kreig reflected on the Good Samaritan story and said that if an LGBT+ person were laying beside the road, the last person they'd want to see coming is a Christian. Too often, it's assumed that we're just angry. If that's not true—if we're not just angry (and I don't believe most Christians are)—we need to do what the Samaritan does in the story. He gives from his own time, money and resources in order to heal and provide for a broken individual. He engages at great personal cost for a sustained period of time so that the harmed person can become whole.
"We need to be willing to do that for the LGBT+ community because we are people that they fear," Matt said. We need to go above and beyond in our engagement in this conversation in order to show our genuine love and care for people—as they are.
So much of this starts with humility and asking ourselves hard questions. Pastor Marvin shared how he has sorted through this as a pastor. I want to quote him at length because the wisdom here is so valuable:
"For me, as a pastor, you either live or die by words. You say words, and you think that they're coming across a certain way, and they end up hurting…So I started rehearsing. Have I said things or even laughed at jokes that were insensitive that if someone who is struggling with same-sex attraction who was next to me, and I laughed…would they consider me an unsafe person? …And if they're thinking that I'm not a safe person, then they're probably also thinking this is not a safe place…We need to repent of that because there are individuals who are struggling with same-sex attraction in your church who will not view you as a safe person. They will never ever come to you. They will never ever come to any of your leaders. So that was a big deal for me…I had to actually repent of my words and even my laughter at words that other people had said."
I am grieved by Matt's comments that Christians are feared by LGBT+ people, and I'm inspired by Pastor Marvin's humility and his willingness to wrestle with his own sin. My prayer is that the Christian Church can increasingly become a place where all people will know it is safe to enter, to share, to grieve and to heal.
Ask God for a Watershed Moment
At the end of the session, the panel discussed some basic steps pastors and ministry leaders can take to engage the LGBT+ conversation faithfully. Their advice was practical. Begin with your leaders so that you can get on the same page. Take ownership of wrongs done, and be willing to say, "I was wrong." Don't underestimate the value of longevity in your ministry. Time and patience as you walk with people are critical.
Here's the advice that really stuck with me: "Ask God for a watershed moment." If you're not sure how to engage the LGBT+ conversation, ask God for an experience or a relationship that will impact you deeply. Asking for a turning point like that is a posture of humility and trust, not wanting to rush ahead and start a new ministry without doing the necessary inner work ourselves. It's honest and open to how God is pleased to work. But it's also expectant, looking for the opportunity to grow and be changed. I have had my own watershed moments. They were hard, and I'm still learning, but this is discipleship to Jesus Christ.
Jesus demonstrated God's love by humbling himself and giving up his life for others. We can follow his lead in the LGBT+ conversation.
The following resources were recommended by the conference speakers for further reading:
- Dear Church: I'm Gay, a video from the Center for Faith, Sexuality and Gender about real people who have wrestled with their faith, sexuality and gender.
- Pastoral Papers on various topics from the Center for Faith, Sexuality and Gender
- Out of a Far Country: A Gay Son's Journey to God. A Broken Mother's Search for Hope by Christopher Yuan
- Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian by Wesley Hill