June 1, 2003

GAY COUPLES IN CHURCH

Contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. Jude 3

In June 2002 the synod of the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster authorized its bishop to produce a service for blessing same-sex unions. This Canadian church governance body wanted a ritual to use in each of its congregations, enabling homosexual couples to seal their relationship with the church’s authority and blessing. The majority of delegates favored this move, but some strongly opposed it. After the vote to bless same-sex unions, some people got up and walked out of the meeting and declared themselves out of fellowship with the bishop and the synod.

One of those who walked out was prominent theologian and author Dr. James I. Packer. He later explained his action in a magazine article. “Why did I walk out with the others?” Dr. Packer wrote. “Because this decision… falsifies the gospel of Christ, abandons the authority of Scripture, jeopardizes the salvation of fellow human beings, and betrays the church in its God-appointed role as the bastion and bulwark of divine truth” (Christianity Today, January 2003, p. 47).

Things have become even more difficult for Dr. Packer and other Anglicans who share his views. When they walked out of the church meeting, they declared themselves out of fellowship with that particular bishop and regional governing body, but said they remained loyal to the wider Anglican church. But then came British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s announcement of Rowan Williams as the next Archbishop of Canterbury, head of all Anglican and Episcopal churches worldwide. The new archbishop says, “I am not convinced that a homosexual has to be celibate,” and Dr. Williams has personally ordained a priest who had a homosexual partner. His appointment as archbishop has delighted some but has troubled many other Anglicans in various parts of the world. For example, many Africans came to know Christ through Anglican ministries, but many African Christians and leaders favor historic biblical teaching and oppose liberal trend that favors homosexuality.

Anglicans aren’t the only ones affected by the question of gay couples in church. In some denominations, such as the United Church of Christ in the United States and the United Church of Canada, same-sex unions receive official blessing, and sexually active gays and lesbians can be ordained as ministers. The United Church of Canada adopted a declaration stating, “Human sexual orientations (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, heterosexual) are a gift from God, part of the marvelous diversity of creation.” It’s a relief to know that in the United Church’s long list of marvelous sexual orientations, “heterosexual” is included, though it’s last on the list.

The support of homosexuality is so strong in some church groups that Christmas and Easter worship are one-day events, while Gay Pride gets an entire month. The website of a United Church says, “In addition to Christmas Eve and Easter Sunrise services, Faith UCC offers several other special worship services. In June we celebrate Gay Pride Month, and in October our pets join us for a Blessing of the Animals.”

A Boston-area Unitarian Universalist congregation not only celebrates gay pride and blesses the animals but even makes Christmas itself a pageant for homosexuality, boasting that its Christmas Eve service features the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus. They don’t mention an Easter service—they don’t take Jesus’ resurrection seriously. But they do take homosexuality seriously—so seriously that the main feature on Christmas is not the Savior’s birth and angel choirs but a gay men’s chorus.

Lobbying for Change

As a number of religious groups bless homosexual unions, what about denominations where official standards rule out homosexual coupling as contrary to God’s will? Well, even in many of those denominations, there are strong pro-gay groups. These groups oppose their churches’ official positions and keep lobbying for change. They want church approval of gay sex, of homosexual marriage, and of gays and lesbians as pastors and leaders. The United Methodist Church, for example, officially prohibits pastors from blessing gay and lesbian unions, but many Methodist bishops, pastors and members are fighting for change.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is in a similar situation: that denomination has narrowly voted against endorsing homosexual unions, but there is a sizeable pro-gay movement pressing for change. A group called “More Light Presbyterians” issued a declaration defying the church’s position and urging immediate change. According to the declaration, “Justice cannot wait. An unjust standard is no standard at all. Church polity on sexuality divides families and makes enemies of friends. Its effect is to make liars trustworthy and truth-tellers unworthy of full participation. It stands ethics on its head… We believe the time has come to stand for those denied full participation in our church: lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Presbyterians whom God has called to ministry …we have no other choice. We do this because it is right.”

Some of the more liberal Baptist and Lutheran denominations also have sizeable pro-gay lobbies. Similar movements exist even in denominations that aren’t likely to change their official position in the foreseeable future. Roman Catholics have a gay advocacy group called “Dignity.” Gays and Lesbians in Eastern and Orthodox churches formed “Axios” to advance their cause.

My own denomination, the Christian Reformed Church in North America, officially holds that homosexual behavior is sinful and that those who engage in it must repent and abstain from gay coupling, not have their unions officially blessed or be appointed as church leaders. But recently a small Christian Reformed congregation in Toronto decided that every leadership position of the church would be open to homosexual members in committed relationships. The leaders of this particular congregation felt they had to approve gay leaders no matter what the denomination said. In a letter, they declared, “Our accumulated experiences led us to the point where we had to choose: Were we willing to identify ourselves as an inclusive congregation or not? …everything was, in some ways, at stake.”

When other Christian Reformed churches in the Toronto area met as a regional body, they issued a near-unanimous rebuke. They instructed the Toronto church to repent, rescind the decision, and recommit itself to living by biblical standards. If the church would go ahead with ordaining homosexuals anyway, it could end up getting expelled from the denomination.

A Fork in the Road

How should churches relate to gay and lesbian couples? The  church must love persons of every sexual orientation and call them to salvation in Jesus and to holy living. But what does this involve? Does loving homosexuals include warning them that sexual deviance can bring them to hell if they don’t repent and change their ways, or does it mean affirming every sexual orientation as a marvelous gift of God? If people want homosexual relationships and also church membership, should the church exclude them from membership until they repent and commit to leaving a homosexual way of life, or should they be recognized as members in good standing? Should churches actively bless homosexual unions? Should churches ordain homosexuals as leaders and as examples for others to imitate? Many churches wrestle with these matters, and strong disagreements arise.

Some church leaders want to preserve peace and unity by downplaying the issue or by looking for middle ground. But that’s not a very promising approach. It’s hard to pretend the issue doesn’t matter, and there doesn’t appear to be much middle ground. When the Toronto church wanted to ordain gays contrary to the rest of its fellow Christian Reformed churches, it said that “everything was at stake” in letting sexually active homosexuals serve as church leaders. “More Light Presbyterians” say justice requires ordaining gays as leaders; opponents of gay ordination are called liars who turn ethics upside down. From the opposite perspective, J. I. Packer stated what many Christians (including me) believe: churches which bless homosexuality are treating the gospel as false, abandoning the Bible, endangering people’s eternal souls, and betraying the church’s calling to stand for God’s truth.

The question of gay couples in church marks a fork in the road, a parting of ways. Those who think every sexual orientation and behavior is a marvelous gift of God have a different religion from those who see sexual deviancy as an abomination to God.

Some pro-gay churchgoers try to maintain elements of historic, biblical belief, but others don’t bother. As they redefine sexual ethics, they reinvent God to suit themselves. Walter Wink, a prominent seminary professor, supports homosexual unions, even though he concedes that the apostle Paul and other biblical writers opposed them. Wink says that unrepentant gays won’t go to hell because God won’t send anyone to hell—God saves everybody. Wink admits that the gospel according to Matthew quotes Jesus talking about hell many times, but Wink says Jesus didn’t really say such things—Matthew just made them up because he had so much unresolved anger. Somehow Wink knows what Jesus did or didn’t say better than Matthew, who was a constant companion of Jesus. Wink says the Bible teaches us to love everybody but has no normative sexual ethic at all. In his view, God accepts just about everybody and approves just about everything—except, perhaps, commitment to historic, Bible-based Christianity. In one area of biblical teaching after another, he trashes God’s Word and makes up a new religion which he thinks is better.

Or consider what a pro-gay Episcopal church in New Jersey says on its website: “The Nicene Creed [which confesses faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit] does not speak of the relationship most people here have to Christianity… Female imagery is used in prayers and hymns to speak of God as Mother… We intentionally use the traditional form of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Our Mother, our Father, who art in heaven.’ People hold hands throughout the church during this prayer.” All that hand-holding may feel good, but praying to a gender-blender deity doesn’t make that deity real, and promoting gender blender sexual ethics doesn’t make such ethics right.

To know God as he is and to pray in a way that he will listen to us, we must accept the Bible’s revelation of God. And to know how God wants us to handle sexuality and whom God wants as leaders in his church, we must follow the Bible’s guidance. At times this will bring us into confrontation with those who want to change the church’s biblical teaching. It would be more enjoyable to talk about the joy and blessings of belonging to Jesus, but sometimes we must talk about threats to the faith. The Bible book of Jude says,

Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord (Jude 3-4)

Jude warns that such people will meet a terrible end, just like some ancient cities that wallowed in many sins—including homosexual behavior—and which the Lord destroyed by fire. “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion, says the Scripture. “They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire. (Jude 7) In short, the Bible warns that if we practice or defend sexual perversion while talking sweetly of God’s grace and love, we deny Jesus and put ourselves in danger of everlasting hell. I don’t enjoy saying that. I’d much rather talk about other things, but this matter is so serious that there is no choice but to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” This biblical faith and way of life do not change with every new social trend. God has spoken in Scripture once for all, so biblical faith must be believed, obeyed, and defended, not adapted to suit ourselves.

As we contend for the faith, we must keep reaching out in love to those who reject or distort the faith. But as we try to communicate God’s love and truth, we must face the fact that there is a sizeable, well-organized, well-funded movement to put the church on a different path, a self-destructive path, and we must contend against that movement. How must the church contend for the faith in this matter? The church must have the courage and clarity to say “no” on at least three levels: no to gay and lesbian sex acts, no to homosexual marriage and church rituals that bless same-sex unions, and no to church leadership for those who practice or promote homosexual conduct.

No to Gay Sex

At the most basic level, we must say no to all same-sex physical intimacy and contend for the truth that God prohibits homosexual behavior and will judge those who don’t repent of it. In the Old Testament, God says, “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable” (Leviticus 18:22). The New Testament speaks of “shameful lusts” where “women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones, where men “were inflamed with lust for one another” and “committed indecent acts with other men” (Romans 1:26-27). Scripture says, “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?” and includes “homosexual offenders” on the list of the wicked (1 Corinthians 6:9). It’s very important to note that the Bible also says many such people have been forgiven and transformed in Jesus’ name by the Spirit of God, and that is the Bible’s good news for gays. Even those who struggle with strong desires and sometimes fail can be sure of God’s mercy and forgiveness if they keep repenting and turning to Christ. But those who defend their sin and deny their need for forgiveness have no place in God’s kingdom or in his church.

The church must be gentle with those who are new to the faith and are still learning the Christian way. The church must be merciful and supportive of those who struggle and stumble. But the church must expel those who celebrate sin, refuse to repent, and tempt others to sin with them.

Does that sound harsh? Church discipline is unheard of in many congregations—they’re desperate to attract more people, and it would be unthinkable to actually expel anyone. After all, if someone says he believes in Jesus and wants to be included in the church’s fellowship and take part in the Lord’s Supper, how can anyone say no? Well, God says no. According to the Bible, God will take care of judging people outside the church, but the church is responsible to hold its own members accountable and to discipline unrepentant sinners. In 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 the apostle Paul says,

I have written you … not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral… In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral…

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13).

Not everybody who claims to be a Christian brother or sister should be accepted as such. If they don’t believe the gospel and obey biblical instruction, they must not be accepted as part of the church. Instead, the church must discipline them.

God doesn’t want the church to be hasty or harsh. Before a person is expelled from church membership and kept from participation in the Lord’s Supper, every effort must be made to correct with gentleness, patience, and love. And even when someone must be expelled, the goal is restoration. If the person later repents, they should be accepted back with love and joy. Whether the sin is homosexual behavior or some other sin, once the person repents, God welcomes them and so must the church. In the Corinthian case where a man was expelled for sexual immorality, he later repented. At that point the apostle Paul told the church, “You ought to forgive him and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him” (2 Corinthians 2:7-8).

No Blessing of Gay Marriage

Homosexual activity is a serious sin, but many other sins are equally serious. I don’t want to single out gay and lesbian people as somehow more unforgivable than people who sin in other ways. But we live in a time when homosexuality differs from other sins in at least one important way: those who practice it want public approval and the church’s official blessing. Nobody has parades or special months in honor of other sins. Nobody has swearing pride parades, but there are gay pride parades. Nobody has a special month to honor lying or fornication, but people do honor gay pride month. Usually when people sin, they don’t advertise it, but homosexual behavior has become something to boast of openly, something that demands benefits from corporations, special legal status from government, and ritual blessing from churches.

Whatever corporations and governments might do, the church of Jesus Christ must not bless what the Bible prohibits. Homosexual conduct is grounds for church discipline, not for special ceremonies of celebration. A church may be extra patient in helping members who are still learning, who need to grow stronger in faith and haven’t fully absorbed the biblical teaching on sexuality. But it’s a huge error to allow patience to become approval. God himself is often patient with us sinners, but he never approves our sin or pronounces his blessing on it. The Bible says, “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). The church must love homosexual people and seek to rescue them from sin and restore them fellowship with God, but don’t let love for the sinner turn into approval of the sin. “Watch yourself, or you too may be tempted.”

Churches and leaders who bless homosexual unions may have started out with good motives. They truly cared about gay and lesbian people, and as they got to know and appreciate their personalities and talents, they were tempted to believe same-sex relationships weren’t wrong after all. From there they began to equate same-sex relationships with marriage, and since the church blesses marriages, why not have marriage ceremonies for homosexual couples as well? Some of the original motives may have been good, but somewhere along the line, biblical truth got replaced with sentiment, and gay marriage came to be seen as a divinely ordained right.

It is a terrible thing when church leaders honor what God prohibits and bless what God has cursed. The Bible calls homosexual behavior an abomination to God, and to bless it in God’s name simply adds the awful sin of blasphemy to the abomination of homosexuality. God would rather close a church and put it out of business than have sin being blessed in his holy name. In the book of Malachi God is so upset that he thunders, “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors!” God tells unfaithful religious leaders, “I will curse your blessings.” A good leader is one who “walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin,” says God. “But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble” (see Malachi 2:1-9). A pastor or priest who blesses a same-sex union doesn’t make that union any more pleasing to God; he just makes himself more offensive to God.

No to Pro-Gay Church Leadership

A biblically faithful church must say no to people engaging in homosexual relationships, it must say no to rituals for blessing such relationships, and the church must say a decisive no to filling leadership positions with those who practice or promote homosexual unions.

If it’s wrong to engage in homosexual acts, then how can a faithful church ordain openly practicing homosexuals as mentors and models for the people of God? It is a fatal error. Biblical standards don’t allow unrepentant homosexuals even to be church members, and the standard for leadership is higher than the standard for membership. Scripture says, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). According to the Bible, church leaders must proclaim truth that is worthy of belief and live a life that is worthy of imitation. A homosexual lifestyle is not worthy of imitation, so those who live that way are not qualified for leadership.

But what about those who are personally heterosexual but who teach that homosexual relationships are also fine? These people are also disqualified from church leadership. Even if a pastor is a celibate single or is happily married to a member of the opposite sex, if that pastor teaches that homosexuality is pleasing to God, then that pastor is no more qualified to lead the church than a pastor who engages in homosexual acts.

In fact, leading others into sin is even worse than sinning personally. The Bible says, “Woe to those who call evil good” (Isaiah 5:20). Jesus said that if anyone causes little ones to sin, he’d be better off drowning in the depths of the sea (Matthew 18:6). False teaching about sexuality doesn’t just endanger adults who are already sinning and will be encouraged to remain unrepentant. False teaching also puts impressionable children and youth on a path they would not otherwise have followed. That is still another reason to “contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints”—not only to uphold the honor of God and the truth of the gospel but also to protect the next generation from lies that can destroy their souls.

A church must not have leaders who practice or promote homosexual behavior. If a denomination has such leadership, then biblically faithful congregations will leave that denomination. If a congregation has such leadership, biblically faithful Christians will not follow such leaders but will find a different and better congregation to be part of.

Meanwhile, denominations and congregations that are faithful to the Lord and to biblical revelation must be alert and must “contend for the faith once for all entrusted to the saints.” They must not be corrupted by those who “change the grace of God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (Jude 3-4). In ministering to those who face homosexual temptation, the church must be kind yet clear. In the Bible Jude says it well: “Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear [of the corrupting influence of sin]” (Jude 22-23).  After such sober instruction, Jude ends on a ringing note of confidence and joy in the Lord, and that’s how I’d like to end this message:

To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. (Jude 24-25)

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.