For 2,000 years the Christian church’s view of sexuality has been the same: one man and one woman for life. While there has always been tension over the chastity part of this teaching, the basic blueprint was never challenged.
And then it was.
Over the past couple of decades, and then escalating sharply these past few years, the fundamental premise that God designed the most intimate of relationships between a man and woman has been discarded outside the evangelical church, and sharply questioned within. Every week it seems there’s a new evangelical voice saying, as author Jen Hatmaker recently did, that LGBT relationships can be holy.
This mirrors the changing opinion happening among average evangelical church attendees. As of 2014, 36 percent of evangelical protestants believed homosexuality should be accepted in society, and one would assume this percentage has grown in the past two years. The cultural shift is happening so quickly that the traditional Christian teaching on sexuality has gone from the largely unquestioned cultural norm to a relic of a previous era in less than a generation.
Whatever the cause of this shift, it certainly hasn’t been the silence of the church. In 1997 the Southern Baptist Convention famously boycotted the Walt Disney Corporation for having a “gay day” at their theme parks and extending benefits to same-sex partners. It was a touchstone moment in the culture wars. By the time the SBC rescinded the boycott eight years later, their warning to “keep their eye” on Disney was laughed at. People had stopped caring about the boycott years ago. Disney was doing just fine. The church, for all its protesting, had become irrelevant to the cultural conversation.
This leads to an important question: For the churches and leaders still claiming the traditional Christian ethic of sexuality, according to Scripture, what does a more effective social engagement look like? How does the church’s decreasing social significance turn around? The answer starts not with strategy, but with an understanding of why this sexual shift is happening at all.
“WHAT IS TRUTH?”
This is the famous question asked by Pilate after Jesus claims he is a “witness to the truth.” If Pilate lived today, though, he might instead ask “WHERE is truth?”
Influential philosopher Charles Taylor claimed one of the most important cultural shifts happening in current society is an understanding of where truth is located. Throughout human history, truth existed external to the person. For an individual to know the truth about themselves, they would look to their family hierarchy, their relationship to the government or the teaching of the church.
Evangelicals trained to have a “Christian worldview” have been taught this time was a golden age of absolute truth that was then eroded by a secular relativism; but there are serious problems with this way of thinking, and these problems have led to the church becoming ineffective in the LGBT conversation.
The first is this: It ignores the very real ostracization LGBT people have experienced in the church. For many growing up in the Bible belt, homosexual attraction was a perversion, something viscerally disgusting, an abomination. In youth groups the word “gay” or something worse were thrown around as an insult. The few who dared be honest about their silent struggle with homosexuality would be treated as lepers, told to “pray the gay away” or sent to camps designed to cure them.
All this reflected a deep ignorance of how sexuality works. What science has shown is that calling sexuality a choice, in every instance, is often misleading. Whether someone is “born gay” or develops same-sex attraction in the first few years based on a complex and nuanced set of factors, by the time puberty hits LGBT teens find themselves facing an attraction or disassociation with their bodies they realize isn’t normal and that they never asked for. As if the early pubescent years weren’t hard enough, many non-heterosexual teenagers growing up in the church believed these feelings were present because they didn’t have enough faith, that God was angry at them, that there was something disgusting inside them and that they were utterly alone.
When the cultural clash between church and state heated up in the ’90s, the people who had been silently struggling in the church for years had their worst fears confirmed: They were the enemy of God. By treating the LGBT debate as a symptom of creeping moral secularism, deeply hurting and rejected people were turned into a cause to be fought against instead of a people to be loved and understood. The church is still recovering from the damage. Christians who have spent time in the LGBT communities all report the same thing: There is a deep spiritual hunger and awareness, but a fear if they look for it in the church they’ll be hated.
The second and equally serious misconception of the Christian worldview training is how it misunderstands the culture shift. Christians have been taught truth is now non-existent in culture, when really it’s that the source of truth has changed. Today people still believe truth exists, but they believe it is found by tunneling deep into their feelings and internal self-image. This is why one of the popular phrases today is “live your truth.” Be true to yourself. Listen to your feelings. This does mean that truth is relative to the individual, but the answer is not—as Christian apologetics often insists—to attempt to pull people back to a “for the Bible tells me so” view of externally established truth. Especially when it comes to human sexuality, the church and Bible as an authority has been discarded as irrelevant, and attempting to point to Bible verses or complex philosophical arguments as evangelism tools are much less effective than in prior generations. It’s attempting to give someone parched from days in a desert food when what they’re in need of first is water.
THE WHOLE TRUTH
But what if there was a better way?
All throughout Scripture we see apostles and prophets and Jesus himself meeting the culture where it’s at. The truth never changes, but the container that truth is held in often does. And so Jesus uses agrarian illustrations when talking to rural farmers and fisherman, but then gets in weighty theological wranglings with the Pharisees. Paul roots the Gospel in Jewish tradition in the temples, but points to the Athenian “unknown god” when at the acropolis.
For the evangelical church to stay conversant in the LGBT discussion, it needs to meet the culture where it’s at, which is to say “helping them find the truth within.” But the whole truth of “being true to yourself” is that it ends in disaster. Popular blogger, Oprah-approved author and fuzzily-Christian spiritual seeker Glennon Doyle Melton recently announced that after splitting with the husband of her two children three months ago, she is now in love with former Olympic soccer star Abby Wambach. Melton is a powerful and brutally raw writer and it’s not hard to understand her appeal. She doesn’t clean life up. She is honest about “her truth” that she is seeking to find, and there is something noble about her transparency. But the whole truth is that there is something profoundly selfish and self-destructive about what she is putting her family and kids through. Melton, and those who follow her example, will run their lives into the shoals of self-discovery.
Every seasoned pastor has seen this story play out dozens of times, when a hurting, wounded person sees as an act of freedom what is really their enslavement. Every serious Christian has come face to face with the reality that their desires, if given blind control over their lives, will lead to isolation, selfishness and depression. The whole truth is that “finding your own truth” ends in pain. We are very bad at knowing what will truly make us fulfilled.
But this is where the church’s opportunity comes into play. For the evangelical community to reclaim a voice in the LGBT community, it needs to lead not with an ineffective boycott or “here’s what our external truth demands of you” megaphone messages, but with a very true hope for people seeking meaning: The truest version of you is the one God created, and you can find its fulfillment in Jesus.
This view doesn’t cheapen Scripture or take it lightly, but seeks to embrace the heart of God’s Word – namely, reconciling people to God through the work of Christ, over the initial knee-jerk reaction to shame people for what the Bible calls sin. (For more on this, read Andy Stanley’s in-depth treatise on biblical relevancy.)
The challenge this will create for the church is to replace leading with the message of “the Bible says what you’re doing is a sin” and replacing it with “Jesus wants to make all things new in you and the world around you. Are you willing to trust all parts of yourself—including your sexuality—to his authority and follow where he leads.” It then means walking slowly with people as they, like us, say yes to Jesus more and more in every area of their life. It means giving people the grace to say, “Lord, I believe. Help me with my unbelief.” This means the evangelical church creates space in its congregations for the LGBT community to wrestle, and that we don’t call them first to “come and change” but rather “come and see.”