In the last 25 years, the capital “C” church has been embroiled in one fight or another over the issue of homosexuality. From the culture wars of the late ’90s into the early 2000s, to the passing of same-sex marriage by SCOTUS last year, the issue has dominated headlines, sermons, articles and podcasts.
The Western culture has shifted to a liberal sexual ethic in general. Has the church? Some would answer with a firm “yes” and others wouldn’t be so sure. But what does the data say? And what do our church leaders—men and women to whom the collective of Christians look for guidance and leadership—have to say on the subject?
What Pastors and Church Leaders Are Saying
This week the Methodist Church held its annual general conference. Before the gathering began, more than 100 pastors, deacons and elders who identify as gay and lesbian sent a co-signed letter asking top church leaders to reconsider the denomination’s position on those in the LGBTQ community, calling them to:
Remember that there are nameless ones around the world, hungry for a word of hope and healing. LGBTQI people and their families exist in every church in every continent of this denomination. They are seeking to remain in faithful relationship with you, even when you refuse, because they know God’s tender mercies and great faithfulness.
The letter shows the deep and widening schism within the denomination. The Council of Bishops ended up voting to defer the issue until next year.
Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church, has spoken out on the issue a few different times, signing a document called, “The Two Shall Become One Flesh: Reclaiming Marriage,” which stated that same-sex marriage was more damaging to the culture than divorce or cohabitation. In an interview with CBS This Morning, Warren also said that tolerance of same-sex marriage is different than acceptance:
“Gay marriage is a very personal question … I have biblical views regarding what marriage is about. I am not in favor of redefining marriage, I’m not. It’s not illegal to have a gay relationship, so it’s not a big issue to me.”
Joel Osteen, another megachurch pastor, has hedged on the issue. In some interviews, he’s said that homosexuality is a sin, but in an interview with The Huffington Post, he refused to say anything further when pressed on the issue.
It would be … but I don’t really focus on a lot of those things … I try to stay in my lane of what I feel called to do. [The topic] does come up in interviews and things … that’s not my core message.”
Both Franklin Graham and Tim Keller have been vocal on the issue, stating that homosexuality is a sin, with Keller focusing on how to treat our neighbors with dignity, and Graham saying that God is the one who defines marriage, not the government. You can watch both men as well as 13 other Christian leaders explain their stances on the issue in this ChurchLeaders article.
These quotes from pastors and denominations show that the divide on this issue is vast. What is clear is that the universal church is seeing a subtle, yet deep shift on the issue. And above a certain stance, there are more and more pastors pivoting toward how to treat our LGBTQ neighbors than commenting on whether or not homosexuality is a sin.
What the Data Says
In a recent article from NPR, the news organization states that while Evangelicals still see homosexuality as immoral, that number is becoming smaller and smaller. The research they cite comes from Pew Research who released a new study in December 2015 showing that an increasing number of not only Evangelicals but Protestants and Catholics are OK with the homosexual lifestyle.
The research organization says that 54 percent of all Christians now approve of homosexuality. In the Evangelical sector, the approval rating has risen from 26 percent to 36 percent in just under 10 years. As younger generations become more and more a part of the church, this number is only expected to rise, due to the fact that many millennials have grown up in an age and era where homosexuality is an accepted practice among their friends and family.
But it’s not only the younger generation who is more approving. A large number of older adults in different Christian denominations are more accepting as well. For example, 32 percent of Protestant Baby Boomers are OK with homosexuality compared to 25 percent in 2007.
Where Do We Go From Here
The issue of homosexuality is fraught with tension within the walls of the church. And there was a time in recent church history where homosexuality was looked at as something of a “super sin”—the worst thing someone could do.
That extreme look at one sin in comparison to all the others we all commit is unbiblical. The way denominations have treated men and women who struggle with homosexuality, often with shame and browbeating, isn’t a reflection of the love that Jesus commands we have for our neighbors.
However, in an effort to correct some of our mistakes against the LGBTQ community, we cannot move into a place of acceptance of what the Bible is clearly against. So how do we navigate the changing tide on this issue—both in culture and within the church? How do we seek to live out grace, truth and love as we encounter friends and family members who are in this lifestyle?
Christopher Yuan, a professor at Moody Bible Institute and author of Out of a Far Country, offered this advice at The Gospel Coalition conference last year.
“One of the ways, I believe the church can kill our chances of never being heard or able to reach out to the LGBT community is to continue to see people in the LGBT community as our opponents. To continue to see them as people we need to fight with. But the reality is these people are many like I used to be. And these are people who need to hear about the life-giving message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So I think one of the first things is just to realize the need. We spend millions of dollars in reaching the lost and unreached people groups. But I believe the LGBT community is one of the most unreached people groups on our doorstep.”
As we consider the cultural landscape and see the subtle shifts in denominations around the issue of homosexuality and the LGBTQ community, we must take care to not compromise the Word of God, both on the issue of sin and how we are called to love the people in our community. It is a line that only the Holy Spirit can walk in and through us.
In the midst of an issue that is so personal and is so divisive, it is up to Christians to be discerning, ask for wisdom and to minister the gospel of Jesus to those He’s called us to, no matter their sexual identity.