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Sex and the People of God

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Posted by Iain Baker, 18 Jun 2020

Iain Baker's article from the Autumn 2019 edition of Crossway considers some of the pastoral issues in the area of sex and sexuality.

Sex is a minefield. Sexuality is a minefield. And Christians must tread more carefully than ever.

In our culture, if you say something that is perceived to be wrong, you can provoke a verbal lashing or a social media storm. You can be demoted or even lose your job. You can see people abandon your church, their faith – and, it’s been reported, even their lives. Tread carefully, indeed.

But how? How can we tread carefully and yet speak faithfully?

Pastoral Principles
The Church of England recently published ‘Pastoral Principles for Living Well Together – and welcoming LGBTI+ people.’ These six principles which ‘invite church communities to consider and discuss their life together as a diverse community’ are:

1. Acknowledge prejudice
2. Speak into silence
3. Address ignorance
4. Cast out fear
5. Admit hypocrisy
6. Pay attention to power

Each principle is given a theological basis, and comes with questions to consider and things to ponder. These principles address very serious issues and include some searching questions which our churches need to acknowledge and discuss.

We need to recognise that as Christians we are not free from prejudice. For example, I once mentioned to a group of Christians that I work with True Freedom Trust, and someone responded, ‘Oooh – don’t stand too close to anyone.’ That is prejudice. That is harmful. The attitude behind a private joke like that won’t help anyone who struggles with sexuality to open up or seek support. And so they may soon seek a more welcoming, open, affirming community elsewhere. It is right that we recognise and acknowledge our prejudice.

The second principle challenges churches who simply avoid the minefield by avoiding talking about sexuality. Is that you or your church? Is the hope that the tricky issues will soon fade away? If you’re a minister, are you secretly hoping that you can just make it safely retirement, leaving the next person to face up to things instead?! If you know there are people in your church for whom this is a personal issue, are they ever being taught and pastored about it? Or are they left to struggle alone? We can’t avoid the issue and we should speak into the silence.

In the challenge to address ignorance, one of the questions asks whether our preaching and Bible studies ‘flow from having established authentic relationships and exercised deep listening’? That’s a great question. If church leaders don’t know our people well – if leaders are not really listening to what is going on in their lives – how can teaching be applied in ways which really connect with people and challenge them? How well do you know the members of your small group? Or the people you chat to every Sunday? What steps could you take to address this kind of ignorance?

In the section on casting out fear, we’re asked, ‘How can we encourage one another to wrestle prayerfully with… avoiding a cheap grace that denies the costliness of Christ’s call to his disciples to take up their cross and follow him?’ That’s a wonderful question which gets to the heart of the gospel for all of us, including those who struggle with same-sex attraction, or other kinds of sexual temptation.

So there are some very valuable challenges for us to consider in these Pastoral Principles. However, there is also much that is problematic.

Problems in the Principles
Here’s the explanation given for the first principle: Because of our understanding that everyone is made in the image of God, we will receive our differences as gift, valuing all people, and seek to see Christ in all our neighbours.

Of course it’s true that everyone is made in the image of God: men, women, Jew, Gentile, slave, free, straight, gay, trans, whoever. We can celebrate when people from any background, any age, any life experience can come together and unite as a church family – as the body of Christ.  We enjoy the fact that, together, our different gifts are used to strengthen the church family, the body of Christ.

But is every difference really a gift to celebrate? Should we celebrate the couple living together? Should we celebrate the couple having an adulterous affair? Should we celebrate the man from Corinth who was sleeping with his father’s wife (1 Corinthians 5:1)? Of course not!

We should celebrate when sinners come to church, and we celebrate even more if they come to Christ. We welcome sinners enthusiastically. We pray they will repent and believe – and take their place in our church family. But we can’t celebrate what Bible says is sinful.

Look at the explanation again. It isn’t asking whether we will receive differences as a gift, it’s telling us that we will receive differences as a gift. The implication is that if we won’t receive every difference as a gift, we are prejudiced. It does not allow for tolerance of disagreement. We can disagree with people without being prejudiced against them. We can recognise that some sexual relationships are sinful, without being fearful, phobic or bigoted.

The final principle urges us to pay attention to power. That’s vital, especially as we seek to avoid any kind of manipulation, bullying or abuse. But the problem with the way the principles as a whole are written is that they don’t just challenge power, they remove authority. They tell us ‘to look for ways to identify, acknowledge, dispel and dismantle the power dynamics in our communities.’ Power must be dispelled and dismantled.

The principles themselves do this, removing the authority to speak truth, to teach the Bible, and therefore to say with authority that something is right or wrong. Every interaction and contribution has to be so marked by listening that no one can claim to know any truth, and no one can speak with authority.

A more biblical model
I want to suggest an alternative model, a more biblical model. Paul challenges us to ‘speak the truth in love…’ (Ephesians 4:15). In Ephesians 4, Paul teaches that what unites a church is sharing the same faith, that has been revealed to us by God. So we are not to be passive, merely listening and exploring and celebrating difference. We must actively teach God’s word to encourage people to become increasingly united in one faith. We’ll be ‘speaking the truth in love’ until we all become more like Jesus.

Some people speak God’s truth with passion – but do so in unloving ways, leaving casualties in their wake. Others want to be so loving that they never dare speak truth, never challenge or chastise, for fear of causing offence. The Church grows – and Christians grow – when the truth is spoken, and spoken lovingly.

Sex is a minefield. So how can we speak the truth about sex in a loving way?

Speak the truth
We have a message that is good news. Its good news to all people, whether they are male, female, Jew, Gentile, slave, free, straight, gay, trans, whatever. Our message is good news because Jesus is good news.

We can be tempted to believe the lie that the gospel oppresses people, that submitting to Jesus makes people less than they could be. But that is a lie. The truth is that the gospel liberates with forgiveness for the past, acceptance for the present, and assurance for the future. When we come to Jesus, we begin to live life in fellowship with our heavenly Father. And so we begin to live life as it should be lived – life in all its fullness.

Working with True Freedom Trust, I meet many gay people who are bowled over by Jesus. They are amazed by his grace in dying for them, and the promises that come with his resurrection. The awesome gospel leads them to willingly submitting to him, and giving up the gay identity for him. They say he is worth living for – worth sacrificing for. Life as a same-sex-attracted Christian is far from easy. But there are many people who can testify that Jesus is worth it.

There are many who can say that they have been rescued from a gay lifestyle. They have been rescued from guilt and shame. They have been rescued from slavery to keeping young and beautiful. They have been rescued to be the man or woman God created them to be.

So don’t be afraid to speak the truth, because the truth really is good news.

Speak the truth in love
But how do we share the good news in a loving way? When I’ve been involved in discussions in our diocese, I’ve explained that we aim to be a church that welcomes all, but we welcome them with Jesus’s message of ‘Repent and believe’. I’ve recently come to realise that they think I call for repentance on first meeting someone who, for example, is in a gay relationship. I guess they think I look oddly at someone who looks like they might be gay, and the inner Ian Paisley bursts out, and I bellow “REPENT, YE SINNER!”

I hope we are all wiser than that! We’re aiming to speak the truth in love. There is wisdom in not jumping down someone’s throat, but taking time to listen and get to know them. And then sharing the gospel like a balm to the heal the hurt and shame, rather than as a stick to beat them with.

When we are sharing the gospel, we should be focussing on Jesus more than on the sin. If we focus on the sin, people only hear condemnation. But when we point to Jesus, people are drawn in by his love and grace. They are drawn to him because he is good news.

If we do church well, people will be drawn Christ through the loving community they see. We must aim for churches that offer more than just a hearty welcome, more than just superficial relationships. We need to build communities where people experience real love, and where they can share their struggles, doubts, temptations and fears, with acceptance, friendship and prayer.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is that in order to encourage those who are struggling with their sexuality that they can share their lives and find encouragement in our churches, we may have to set an example. We need to be open about our own brokenness and sinfulness, so no one views us as modern day saints. We are weak sinners , just like them, who rely on Jesus’s grace every day.

Be bold, be honest, be a godly example. So that you’re not just heard to be speaking the truth in love. You’re seen to be living it too.

Revd Iain Baker is vicar of St Thomas’s Church, Kidsgrove and a trustee of the True Freedom Trust

Photo by Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash

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