(Editor's Note: This monthly column about the issue of homosexuality by various authors is a partnership between Baptist Press and the SBC Task Force on Ministry to Homosexuals. Today's article is by Bob Stith, the SBC's National Strategist for Gender Issues)
SOUTHLAKE, Texas -- When I first realized I needed more information on ministering to people who struggled with same-sex attraction, I really didn't know where to turn. Conversations with friends revealed that they didn't know much more about the subject than I did. I looked in Christian bookstores but at that time they had very little on the topic.
Today, I often hear from pastors who face that same difficulty. While there is definitely more material available today, that in itself can create as much difficulty as the dilemma I faced. How do you determine what is accurate and helpful? What will help me minister effectively to those who struggle with this issue? What will equip me to deal knowledgeably with the cultural claims? And, while we may feel confident that we are familiar with the relevant Scriptures, how prepared are we to answer the new "gay apologists"?
Answers to some of these questions will require hours of study, attending or sponsoring workshops, and time dialoguing with those who have years of experience. On the other hand, there are certain basic things every church and pastor can and should do. But before we even begin that journey we should examine our hearts and our motives.
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Men and women with whom I've talked and ministered through the years have told me stories of hearing Christians share their disgust for homosexuals. Usually the person saying this had no idea that there was someone in the group who struggled with that issue. I've also talked with men who had no reservations about ministering to street people, drug addicts, or sex addicts but expressed disdain for people with same-sex attractions.
If there is any trace of this attitude in your heart, you must be honest about that and do whatever it takes to overcome it. You might begin by acknowledging that this attitude is sin and is displeasing to our Father. When the rich young ruler came to Jesus, the Bible records these words: "Then, looking at him, Jesus loved him" (Mark 10:21). We can do no less with those to whom we minister.
Perhaps subconsciously we think this sin is worse than other sins. At the 2003 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Phoenix, Dr. Richard Land said, "Homosexuality is neither the unpardonable sin nor the worst possible sin" (Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission report on the SBC Task Force on Ministry to Homosexuals).
Secondly, we must examine our motives. Too often we can appear more concerned with defeating the homosexual agenda than we are with restoring broken lives. Are we genuinely driven by a desire to see captives set free? Do we see those who are set free as trophies of God's grace or proof that we're right in the culture war?
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We minister out of who we are, and if either of these attitudes is present in us, it will at some point be evident to those to whom we desire to minister. We must also accept the challenge of communicating these things to our churches. One father told me, "I used to join in the laughter at 'gay jokes' and then my son told me of his struggle. Now, even though my son has overcome his struggle, it is like a knife in my heart when I hear those comments." Our churches should be safe places for both those who struggle and those who love them. Here are five things your church should know:
1. Your church already has much of what it takes for this ministry.
At the 2003 Exodus Freedom Conference, Dr. Neil Whitehead discussed the question, "What is the most helpful thing in decreasing same-sex attraction?" Two different surveys came up with the same answer -- mentoring. This is basic Christian discipleship.
Many times I've heard men and women tell of Christians who just loved them and walked with them. Dennis Jernigan, who has given so many wonderful songs to the church and who once struggled with homosexual attractions, says that for him, it was a friend who said to him, "Dennis, I don't know anything about this, I've never struggled with it, but this is what I'm willing to do. I'll walk toward Jesus with you, whatever it takes, however long it takes." Could there be a Dennis Jernigan in your life?
2. Understand that people aren't born that way.
The idea that homosexuality is predetermined genetically has been repeated so often that even many Christians have accepted it. People usually react with surprise or disbelief when told that not one scientifically accepted, replicable study has demonstrated this. On the other hand, several studies have demonstrated that change is possible.
3. Homosexuality isn't a choice.
In a LifeWay research survey, 90 percent of Southern Baptist pastors said that homosexuality is a choice.
At this point, we must distinguish between behavior and desires or temptations. When Job's wife encouraged him to "Curse God and die!" (Job 2:9), he was tempted to do something he had not previously considered. Obviously, the goal of the enemy was for him to act on that temptation. But do you suppose that Job chose the circumstances of that temptation?
Personally, if I could choose my primary temptation, I would choose something like going 40 in a 30 mph speed zone. However, one of the facts of life is that we don't usually get to choose our temptations. As has been said, "Sometimes we get to choose the dragon, but usually the dragon chooses us."
To act on a temptation is always a choice, but to have the temptation is not. Many times I've heard people say, "I've always hated being tempted by this. I cried out to God many times to just take it away. I couldn't understand why I was tempted by this."
Believers in Jesus Christ are not exempt from the temptation of homosexuality. Being raised in the church does not guarantee immunity from this or any other temptation.
4. Quoting the Scriptures about homosexuality is not the solution.
At first glance this may seem completely wrong-headed to many. I once read a letter from a lesbian who spoke of Christians who came to gay events and held up signs with the "relevant" verses printed on them. She commented, "Don't they think we know those verses better than any in the Bible? It isn't like we saw the signs and said 'Wow, they think homosexuality is sin. Who knew?'"
I've often heard from parents who read those verses to a child who had disclosed their struggle with homosexuality.
Of course, it is important to be clear on what the Bible says. But usually, the struggler already knows this. What they don't know is how to deal with the struggle. "What can you do to help me? What specific scriptural principles will help me get through this?" Our task force was formed to provide such scriptural resources.
5. You do have people who are impacted by this sin.
After God changed my heart and my approach became more compassionate and redemptive, several church members opened up to me and for the first time disclosed that they had a relative or close friend who struggled with homosexuality. Many times both strugglers and their loved ones have told me they would never tell their church family about the struggle with homosexuality.
If you factor in the percentage of people in America who struggle with this sin, their parents, close relatives and friends, you will find that conservatively speaking, from one-third to one-half of Americans are directly impacted by this struggle.
If we are not willing to lovingly and redemptively come alongside them, we may well lose them to homosexual activist groups. Neither condemnation nor silence will prevent this.
Josh McDowell once said that "if your church is healthy, you will have people who are struggling with adultery, pornography, homosexuality, and other sins." He went on to explain that "if your church is healthy, God will send hurting people there to be healed."
If we don't have "that problem," perhaps the question we should be asking is, "Why don't we?" If your church is a New Testament church, it should be characterized by Paul's words: "Some of you were like this ..." (1 Corinthians 6:11). Healthy churches should be known for offering hope to people no matter what the nature of their struggle.
In the 2003 report to the SBC annual meeting in Phoenix, Dr. Jimmy Draper said, "Thousands of people long to be free from the struggle with homosexuality. God is looking for people who will reach out with His saving, healing love through Jesus Christ." We pray you will make yourself available.
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