Last Sunday I was preaching down at Crofton Baptist Church in the morning service and then was interviewed on the subject of same sex attraction over lunch. I found the day immensely encouraging, especially meeting the pastor there who is a son of a former pastor of the church here. The recording for the interview didn’t work so I agreed to write up my answers to some of the questions- partly to help those who missed the session there but I hope it will also benefit the church here.
It is just over two years since I was interviewed on my personal experience of same sex attraction at a service here. It fills the second part of this recording. But on Sunday we also covered issues that weren’t in the interview I did here- especially how my own experience has led me to relate to a variety of different groups. So here are the answers to some of the questions that I was asked on Sunday. Apologies that this is long- feel free to pick out the question that interests you most!
You hold to the historical Christian position that sexual relationships are only for a man and a woman in marriage. What would you say to Christians and churches that are now changing their position on this issue?
Given this is a difficult subject I want to speak gently. However, I do think that for a church to change its position is unwise and actually dangerous- because it won’t simply represent a change on a minor ethical issue. A change in position on this probably reflects that the church has got it wrong in terms of how we relate to culture. The church is to be a light in the culture and not simply imitators of it. I am always somewhat suspicious of a church agreeing with what the culture decided twenty years ago and overturning how the Bible has been read for 1900 years.
To be candid, if you change your mind on this then you are changing the way you read the Bible. The teaching of the Bible on this subject is plain. There are no positive references to homosexual activity. They are all negative. There are clear prohibitions against such behaviour. More than that the whole thrust of marriage is that it is between a man and a woman because that’s what illustrates the relationship for which marriage is a signpost- Christ and the church. Men and women are not, therefore, interchangeable any more than Christ and the church are. That’s the sweep of Scripture and affirmed by Jesus Himself in Matthew 19. I realised a while back that if I changed my approach on the sexuality debate I would have to give up my role as a Bible teacher because I would have distorted the natural way of reading the Scriptures for my own ends. It is more than just a minor ethical issue. It becomes an indicator of whether we will submit to God’s authority revealed in the Scriptures or whether we will seek to overturn it.
But is that fair? What right has the church got to insist that you shouldn’t enjoy a loving monogamous relationship with another man?
That goes to the heart of what Christian discipleship is about. The basic call of Jesus is to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him. So frankly the church is always (or at least should be) calling all of us (not just those who are same sex attracted) to give up things that may be precious to us for the sake of following Jesus. That will always mean giving up ease and comfort, making financial sacrifices and so on. For some of us that will mean sacrificing a relationship or the possibility of a relationship that would conform to our sexual desires. If we have a problem with that then our problem is with Jesus rather than the church!
But I also want to say that it is worth it. Jesus goes on to say that those who give up their lives for Him will ultimately gain them. I believe that is true. It may well be that I give up a sexual relationship in this passing world. But I will get to enjoy the relationship that will last forever and, of which, marriage here on earth is a pale reflection. I will be part of the church that will be married to Christ forever. Having given up one aspect of life I will gain it ultimately.
So in calling me to avoid a sexual relationship with another man the church is simply repeating the pattern of discipleship laid down by Jesus.
But all of us want to be accepted for who we are. Shouldn’t the church accept the way God has made you?
Of course I want the church to be a place of acceptance and, as it happens, that has very much been my experience. However, I want to define who I am very carefully. Firstly I am somebody who is made in the image of God. Actually I wouldn’t say that God has made me gay. All of us as human beings are mixed. We are made in the image of God and have great dignity but, because of the fall, we are subject to a whole range of desires that were not part of God’s original plan. So I would describe myself as somebody made in the image of God who wrestles with same sex desires that God for the moment has not taken away (for reasons that I indicate in the original interview at the church here). Alongside that I would describe who I am as being a child of God, a brother of the Lord Jesus, a temple of the Holy Spirit and so on. My sexuality ends up coming a long way down a list of identity markers- which is why I tend to use the phrase same sex attracted rather than gay because gay sounds very much like a major identity marker.
So I want to be accepted as God defines me rather than as how I might be tempted to define myself. I am a child of God who, like every other Christian, wrestles with a whole range of desires. I’ve found the church to be very accepting of that.
So how do you think the church can help pastorally those who experience same sex attraction?
There is plenty to say here but let me make three suggestions. Firstly- it is really good to talk about the subject and not just as a theological discussion point. I don’t know whether the church here noticed but, prior to talking abut my own challenges, I would often include same sex attraction when preaching about temptation or suffering and would include homophobia as an example of self-righteousness. My aim was to flag up that this was an issue Christians experience and so it was OK to talk about it. Personally I am very thankful for the church leaders who started to talk about their own struggles a couple of years prior to me doing it- it made it safe for the rest of us. So I want to encourage the church to talk about it regularly as a pastoral issue and then if individuals talk about their own challenges that they are loved and listened to rather than ignored out of awkward embarrassment.
Secondly I would be realistic about change. There may well be some fluidity about sexual attraction at a young age and some people will experience more of an attraction to people of both sexes than has been my experience. But overall I have heard too many promises of change offered to Christians struggling with this issue. Of course if change doesn’t happen then the poor person will either blame God or themselves- neither of which is healthy. And don’t try exorcism unless you are about to try to exorcise temptation out of every church member…
The other thing that would be a great help would be if the church (speaking generally not specifically about Woody Road!) stopped idolizing human marriage and regarding it as a key indicator of having arrived at maturity. Over the years various people have told me that I needed a good wife. As it happens I became pretty thick skinned so it didn’t impact me massively but it may not have helped others in a similar situation. Of course we want to rejoice when friends get engaged or married because marriage is good but we don’t want to indicate that their life is now complete.
Society has changed hugely over the last few years. So how do we relate to friends and family who may be in gay relationships?
Love them. I addressed this subject in a sermon I preached recently from 1 Corinthians 5. There is a difference in how we are to relate to Christians and non-Christians on this subject. To be candid I am passionate about the church standing firm on this issue within its own walls and for its own members but some of the Christian campaigning in secular society on this subject has made me want to hide under the covers. It is pointless and potentially harmful to tell the non-Christian world to behave like Christians. They need to be loved and to hear about Jesus. So I would love gay couples and, frankly, not raise the subject unless they want to talk about it themselves.
What would you say to a younger Christian struggling with this issue?
I am trying to imagine what I would say to my 18 year old self. I think there would be two main things. Talk to people about it. Overwhelmingly the response and support of other Christians has been supportive and that has increasingly been the case. I took too long to find the support that I needed and I really would encourage those facing distress about this issue to find two or three friends or church leaders to talk to and pray alongside.
In addition I would say that it is possible to flourish whilst living with this issue and without entering a sexual relationship. I turn forty in a few days time. I don’t look back on the last twenty years as a period of great misery. Yes there have been hard times when friends have been a great support but, overall, they have been years of knowing God’s love and faithfulness enabling me, I hope, to be useful in the church and have mutually enriching friendships.
What would be your overall challenge to the church?
God’s plan is beautiful and amazing. Jesus wants to be married to His church forever. Please don’t wreck and distort the chief picture of that. Hold it up as something for those who are married and those who are not to look forward to and find satisfaction in.
Those were the answers I gave (slightly polished up!) at the interview on Sunday. Fuller- and probably better- answers to these questions can be found at the Living Out site.