19 Dec 2016
A pastor calls, wondering what he should do. A married woman in his church is beginning to look like a man. Over several months her changed appearance has made it increasingly clear that a slow but significant transformation is happening. But neither the woman nor her husband has asked for help. No one in the congregation has said anything publicly, though people are beginning to take notice. Hence his confusion. What should this pastor do?
For a church to help someone with gender confusion, they must first see a real person in distress. When we get down to the level of the individual, this becomes not a cultural battleground but a person who is struggling. Yes, our culture has made transgenderism the issue du jour, but the person in front of you is like a lamb without a shepherd. In everything you do, help her come to the true Shepherd who will gently guide her.
So, if someone in your church is struggling with gender confusion, we need to do more than proclaim adherence to Genesis 1 and 2 to resolve his or her dilemma. Yes, good biblical teaching on sexuality is necessary. We must not abandon the anchor position that Scripture gives us: God created humanity as male and female, and those two genders are who we are as unique, individual persons. Living out our given maleness and femaleness is an essential part of what it means to be human.
But we also live in a Genesis 3 world. Ours is a world that is broken, resembling God’s original design but increasingly showing deep cracks in how God’s image bearers reflect his image. Men and women have struggled with sexuality and gender for countless ages, so this isn’t anything new.
What is different now, however, is how the culture has turned reality upside-down, insisting that the individual decides what is real and true, rather than the individual conforming to reality. But those who wrestle with their gender identity don’t think they are trying to be rebellious. Rather, they are confused, desperate, and fearful, trying to make sense of their pain. The distress they feel is real. The world’s solution seems more hopeful, a better “fit” to their struggle, so they embrace the post-Christian script that gender is essentially pliable.
What is our advice on what this pastor could say to this woman? How might he speak a message that could give her hope—maybe enough hope to grasp why God has called her to live as a woman; maybe enough hope that she can begin to see herself living congruently with her femaleness; and maybe enough hope for a future that would help her choose to slow down and reverse the transition process she seems to be pursuing?
What do we say? Here are five broad principles this pastor and a church can pursue:
Affirm and recognize how hard this is
Affirm the likelihood that this struggle has been going on for some time. Recognize that this is not a superficial battle and that she and others are trying to make sense of what they experience. Ask good questions so that you can begin to grasp what her life is like and why she feels so strongly that she needs to transition to the opposite gender. When did you start feeling this way? When do you feel it most strongly? What makes you feel most desperate? Get to know her; listen to her stories that are shaping her. Listen carefully.
Understanding biblical truth, and then applying it to our hearts, is a journey, so expect this to take time.
Carefully teach and seek mutual involvement
Communicate to her that deep, persistent struggles grow stronger when we contend with them in isolation. As someone who attends your church, ask if she would allow you to keep speaking into her life about this. You want to hear her thoughts but you also want her to listen as you share a biblical perspective on gender and sexuality. Keep in mind that she has come to hate parts of herself, so communicate in a way that helps her question what she believes about gender rather than trying to convince her with an argument. Questions like, If God has designed every detail of your life from the beginning (Psalm 139), how do you view God if you insist on transitioning? What makes you hate parts of your body when God loves the very body he gave you? What would need to change if you began to accept the body you were born with? Do you know what Scripture says about what it means to be a man or a woman? How is that different from what you believe?
Understanding biblical truth, and then applying it to our hearts, is a journey, so expect this to take time.
Good teaching is rarely, if ever, the sole factor that encourages someone to move in the right direction. Our words, combined with our loving presence, are what people in pain need. Being involved also means connecting her to the body of Christ. You could assist her with Christian counseling, help her find an older and wiser woman as a mentor, involve her in appropriate ministry, pray with her, etc. It is in the body of Christ where we grow. Here, among those who will encourage her, she will learn to accept and grow into the gendered body God gave her. Walk with her for as long as it takes, through all the successes and failures that will be a part of her journey.
Help her to grasp that our life, which includes our body, first belongs to God
Patiently teach that believers in Christ have a deeper foundation for their identity than those in the world. We do not have the right to be autonomous, self-determined individuals, creating identities and lives that fit our felt needs. We are unique individuals, but we first belong to the One who gave us life and redemption. Being made in the image of God includes our gendered body; who we are and how we relate to God and others flows through and is shaped by the body we are given at birth. The body is not like a piece of clothing we can change; we are “ensouled bodies,” bodies into which God breathes life. The body he has given us is essential to our identity.
An identity grounded in Christ seeks his purposes above all else. Orienting ourselves around Christ allows us to reflect on the secure identity that he offers, rather than frantically trying to discover or fashion an identity for ourselves. Grounding who we are in Christ gives us the means to fight and grow increasingly free of internal desires that first confuse and then enslave us.
Teach a biblical view of perseverance in the midst of suffering
Acknowledge that some life-situations are chronic, persistent, and will not be completely resolved in this life, like many chronic disability circumstances. We are called to persevere faithfully in certain situations, to discover in and through the struggle that God’s grace gives all of it meaning, purpose, and daily strength to live, grow, and even to prosper (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).
Call her to bring God into the heart of the situation
Bringing God into the heart of the situation is absolutely necessary because this is a spiritual issue too. Her gender distress has another element of struggle, beyond what she or others think about this issue. And it is this: To go against God’s design and purpose (and reality itself) brings about increasing confusion and pain. Searching for healing is not necessarily wrong, but pursuing solutions that violate God’s intentional design and purpose is rebellion against him. Bringing God into the center is to move toward obeying him, even when it is difficult.
Obedience involves repentance, a daily practice that slowly brings about change and joy. This is accomplished not by focusing on behavior, but by helping her see her heart, the place where she still seeks to find her own solutions. Help her see that obedience is not just keeping a set of rules, but rather the means to experience following Christ as a life-affirming direction. But be careful about what obedience looks like. We are not calling her to live out gender stereotypes, but for her to embrace being a woman who lives that out in ways that honor God, which can look uniquely different than our preconceptions.
We could say a lot more here. But speaking into these broad categories might open doors to effectively help someone wrestling with gender confusion to seek God’s help to be who God has called him or her be.
30 Nov 2016
On May 13, 2016, many were surprised to learn that the federal government issued a directive, concerning transgenderism, to schools receiving federal Title IX grants. The directive said that schools must allow transgender students to use the bathroom and locker room that match their gender identity. A confusing issue on a personal level became even more confusing as it developed into a public policy issue.
The emergence of public scrutiny over gender raises questions in the minds of many Christians: Why would someone identify as transgender? What do we mean by gender? Is it possible that there are more than two genders, male and female? How does Scripture call Christians to interact with transgender individuals?
These questions and the various answers given have sparked tremendous confusion and even, from some, hostility over what many see as another example of society going off the rails. It has become crucial for Christians to know how to reason through these issues on gender. With opinions on gender coming at us from all directions, we must find clarity to both understand and respond—intelligently, and with Christ-like compassion.
How do we understand what gender is?
What is a traditional understanding of gender? To understand what is revolutionary about current gender politics, a quick look at how gender has been viewed historically, across all cultures, is necessary. For the whole of human existence, society, with few exceptions, has affirmed a male-female binary regarding gender. In other words, an individual’s [given] physical sex at birth revealed and determined which gender the person was, however those gender roles of being a man or woman were expressed in one’s given cultural time period.
In the twin areas of sexuality—sexual behavior and gender identity the church is experiencing tremendous pressure to change its understanding of what Scripture says about personhood and identity—and to subsume its authority to that of the individual.
This view of gender understood that for a very few number of individuals (about one in every 1,500 births, or .007% of the population), this binary classification was not clear at birth. A condition known as intersex, formerly known as hermaphroditism, occurs when an individual is born either with genitalia of both sexes or with ambiguous genitalia. This poses tremendous challenges for these children and their parents regarding what gender they will live out. We ought to give much understanding and compassion for these difficult situations. However, intersex conditions have not been viewed historically as evidence of multiple genders, but rather as disorders of sexual development. Like someone born without the ability to use their legs to stand or walk, such a condition does not argue that there are multiple views about what legs are for.
What is the new cultural understanding of gender? In simple terms, it’s this: Instead of possessing one of two fixed genders for life, the new understanding is that gender is fluid. Gender exists not as two permanent, fixed points, but rather on a continuum ranging from male to female. One’s experience of gender is no longer one gender or the other; instead, it can be entirely opposite from one’s biological sex, or one can switch back and forth between two genders. The goal of this cultural redefinition of gender is to ultimately do away with even the categories of male and female. Gender doesn’t matter in understanding what it means to be human.
A second element of this new cultural understanding is that gender is not innate, but acquired. While a child is born with male or female genitalia, that child does not develop his or her sense of gender identity until well after birth, according to psychologists. In most individuals, psychological gender is congruent with physical sex. However, in some cases, this is not so. Hence, it is possible to have an individual born with genitalia associated with one gender, but to have a psychological conception of one’s gender that is incongruent with one’s physical sex.
Transgender is a blanket term applied to a person whose subjective experience of gender is incongruent with his or her physical sex. Because of this perceived discrepancy, a transgender individual may elect to live out his or her gender in any number of ways. One might choose to identify as a particular gender different from his or her physical sex but never take measures to surgically or pharmacologically alter his or her physical sex. Someone might go through a process of using certain drugs to alter brain chemistry and hormone levels to develop physical characteristics of his or her preferred gender. Or one might elect to undergo gender reassignment surgery. These last two processes are known colloquially as transitioning.
Gender matters to God, and as his image bearers, it should matter to us as well.
This particular cultural concept of gender is new and itself in a state of evolution. In 2012, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) of the American Psychiatric Association categorized the aforementioned types of gender incongruence as a psychiatric condition: Gender Identity Disorder (GID). Just four years ago, the psychiatric community would have counseled the GID-presenting patient to accept his or her physical sex.
When the DSM-IV was updated in 2013 (DSM-V), the diagnostic criteria for GID changed, so that most people who were previously diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder are now diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria—a perceptual problem, as opposed to a disorder. Now the goal of the therapist is to help patients accept their perceived or preferred psychological gender.
What is the problem with transgender? Essentially, this view of sex and gender makes the individual’s experience and feelings primary about what it means to be a person. Who I am and what I am are grounded in what I feel or believe about myself. Everything else—whether Scripture, or physical reality, or millennia-old social understanding—becomes secondary to my understanding of personhood. So if I feel as though I am another gender—whether male, female, or something in-between—that is who I actually am.
This radical view of personhood and identity comes out of the movement toward deconstructing gender and sex (as they have been traditionally and historically understood), which is the fruit of the sexual revolution that began more than half a century ago. Sexual boundaries and gender understanding are seen as social constructs, imposed by tradition (religious and civil) and by those in power. Viewing the issue from that worldview, the individual is elevated above society and is now seen as self-determinative and authoritative, able to choose what best fits their own perception of reality. The result of this worldview disallows any kind of objective truth from God—that the world he created has a particular design and a particular purpose within which people find God’s plan, his purposes, and themselves.
In the twin areas of sexuality—sexual behavior and gender identity—the church is experiencing tremendous pressure to change its understanding of what Scripture says about personhood and identity—and to subsume its authority to that of the individual. While the world sees this process as freedom and finding authenticity of self, Scripture views it as the outworking of sin and rebellion that is the result of the brokenness of life. The last line in the book of Judges, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” aptly describes our world of increasing chaos and brokenness.
What is God’s view of gender?
Understanding the narrative of Scripture when it discusses human beings, made in the image of God, as either male or female, will give us a critical starting point for entering into this discussion.
Scripture is the starting point for how Christians ought to think and live. God’s Word has much to say regarding gender and makes the following especially clear:
- It identifies two (and only two) genders in creation, with no distinction between biological sex (male and female) and gender (being a man or a woman)
- It describes the brokenness of creation in the Fall, from which gender confusion results
Scripture identifies two (and only two) genders in creation
We see this plainly when God establishes two genders—male and female—by decree in Genesis 1:27:
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
God created men and women specifically for a particular kind of relationship with one another: The covenant of marriage, where the creation of children, leading to the development of both family and society, is a major reason for our sexuality. Sexual activity is connected to humanity’s purpose in life—a purpose that God mentions in Genesis 1:28 to manage the earth and make it a place of bounty and beauty. Creating life is an essential part of this.
But the Genesis story, as the anchor for our understanding of sexuality and gender, doesn’t limit gender differences only to reproduction. Male and female reflect God’s image to the world, and particularly so when a husband and wife join together in marriage. The narrative in Genesis hints at how gender differences profoundly shape humanity and our relationships. When Adam first sees Eve, he speaks of both similarity and difference, and between them a relationship develops where intimacy, transparency, mutual love, and unity grow in a way unlike any other human relationship (Gen 2: 21-25). Eve’s designation as Adam’s “helper” speaks of a relationship of unity and shared purpose (and not, as some erroneously think, that woman is inferior to man).
The importance of gender is not relegated only to marriage, either. A single man or woman also lives out their unique identities and personalities in the context of their malenesss or femaleness. All relationships are structured and enhanced through how we relate to one another as gendered beings.
So, God has established two genders—male and female—generally, in creation. But, we must note that he has also established these genders particularly in the lives of each individual. That is to say, God has assigned one of the two genders to each person at his or her birth. Scripture declares that God has planned out our unique identities, which includes the biological sex with which we were born.
The Psalmist in Psalm 139 says clearly that God designed each person before he or she existed:
- “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:13)
- “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” (Psalm 139:15)
- “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.” (Psalm 139:16)
God both declares and foreknows the gender he has given to us. Examples of this are found throughout Scripture: Hagar is told she will bear a son who is to be named Ishmael (Genesis 16:11); Abraham and Sarah are told that Sarah will bear a son, and they are to name him Isaac (Genesis 17:19); the angel of the Lord tells Manoah that his barren wife will soon bear a son (Judges 13:3); and Mary receives the startling news, as an unmarried woman, that she would bear a son, Jesus, who would be the Messiah (Luke 1:31).
These key redemptive-historical acts, while they only mention the birth of sons, nevertheless establish the fact that it is God who ordains who we are as either male or female, as either sons or daughters.
Scripture describes the brokenness of creation in the Fall, from which gender confusion results
Christians do not live in a perfect, transcendent world; they share in the extensive brokenness of all creation. In the area of sexual behavior, the numerous prohibitions in the Old Testament regarding particular sexual acts is telling. The reason why God had to spell out one sexual prohibition after another was not because he views sex as intrinsically evil (as some think Christian doctrine teaches), but because our fallen, sinful hearts are capable of doing evil even with the good things God has created.
Though God’s order for creation exists in fractured form, it still remains. It still matters that we live according to it. Regarding gender confusion or fluidity, in Deuteronomy 22:5, the Lord tells his people that to live as if you are someone of the opposite gender is sin. For many years, Deuteronomy 22:5 was used as a proof text against transvestitism, but its meaning goes far beyond simply wearing the clothes of the other gender. The verb-object clause used in the verse means to “put on the mantle” of the opposite gender—in other words, to live as though you were of the other gender.
The entire narrative of Scripture, including this passage, proclaims that God created all individuals to be either male or female, and to live as a man or woman in harmony with their physical sex. (As mentioned earlier, special consideration should be given to those who are born with intersex conditions, for they will require difficult decisions that are made for the benefit of the child; but these rare non-binary situations, which some proclaim as evidence of a “third” gender or sex, are evidence that God’s original design is broken and not that he intended multiple forms of gender.)
Gender matters to God, and as his image bearers, it should matter to us as well. To alter one’s birth gender or to live as a member of the other gender is therefore sin—as it is a repudiation of God’s will and intent for the particular creature.
One is reminded of the Lord’s words to his rebellious people in Isaiah 29:16:
You who turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?
To live outside of his design and purpose is to engage in rebellion against him, even if that rebellion is the result of confusion and personal pain. The confusion about gender is the result of our world moving away from an acceptance of God as both creator and ruler. The implications for the individual in distress, and for society as a whole, are enormous. It is right and good and necessary that we proclaim a true view of human personhood and the benefits that come from embracing it.
22 Nov 2016
I’ve come across some interesting and informative web posts that are good reads and worth your time! Every so often I’ll try to send to our website readers a few articles, columns, or reports that can help you stay on top of current cultural trends in sexuality and how to respond with biblical wisdom and compassion. Just a heads up: Not everything will be from a Christian perspective, nor will it always reflect what we think and believe, but if it has critical information or a careful perspective we should know about, I’ll post the link.
This is a long read, but well worth it! The New Atlantis Journal published its September 2016 issue entirely on sexuality and gender issues. The New Atlantis Journal
1. You can read this issue online, or you can download it as a PDF file. Drs. Lawrence Mayer and Paul McHugh write a summary of medical and social science research related to sexual orientation and gender identity. The report already has made a big impact.
Here are two sentences from it:
“The understanding of sexual orientation as an innate, biologically fixed property of human beings—the idea that people are ‘born that way’—is not supported by scientific evidence.”
“The hypothesis that gender identity is an innate, fixed property of human beings that is independent of biological sex—that a person might be ‘a man trapped in a woman’s body’ or ‘a woman trapped in a man’s body’—is not supported by scientific evidence.”
The New Atlantis is not a Christian journal, so it is important that this study rebuts the cultural/political mantra that sexual orientation and gender dysphoria are biologically caused. In other words, the issue is not settled as many proclaim. While some of its conclusions do not entirely align with Scripture’s view of sexuality and gender, it is, nevertheless, a careful examination of issues of causation and care for those who live with same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria.
2. On the issue of gender and transgender, Dr. Robert Gagnon has a blog post responding to Dr. Mark Yarhouse responding to Gagnon’s response to Yarhouse’s Christianity Today article. I hope you were able to follow that.
How the church should respond to men and women with gender dysphoria is pastorally critical regarding faithfulness to Scripture in what it says and how we help those who struggle to obey Christ. Yarhouse and Gagnon are believers who care deeply about the gospel and how the church should apply it to people struggling with same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria. Our Transgender Resource Page already has links to Yarhouse’s CT article, as well as Gagnon’s first reply to that. Transgenderism Resources
Here’s the second round of their online conversation about pastoral care of someone dealing with gender dysphoria.
Mark Yarhouse’s article in First Things: Understanding Gender Dysphoria: A Reply to Gagnon
Robert Gagnon’s reply: The Yarhouse Rejoinder
We appreciate both these men, and what they bring to the conversation on sexuality and gender. The more our society embraces secularism, the more complicated it will be for the church to help its victims. If you’re wondering where Harvest USA leans on this complicated transgender issue, we side more with Gagnon. We should be pastorally sensitive in helping the individual, patiently walking with that person, willing to flex with them in their struggle to follow God, but not in a way that affirms or encourages what is delusional in their struggle. There are some boundary lines that we believe would be wrong to cross in how we help someone.
3. Here’s a short read. Tim Keller posts a thought experiment about how one’s culture influences and shapes what we think and believe. “The Gay Anglo-Saxon Warrior.”
Our culture is constantly pressing in on us to “be ourselves,” and that all-important search to “find ourselves” is discovered internally, by how one feels. But our feelings are a blind guide to life. Cultural voices that call us to live in ways that entice us to disobey God are echoes of the original voice in the Garden, “Did God actually say….?”
Here are a few sentences to entice you to read this short excerpt from a book Keller wrote: “What does this thought experiment show us? Primarily it reveals that we do not get our identity simply from within. Rather, we receive some interpretive moral grid, lay it down over our various feelings and impulses, and sift them through it. This grid helps us decide which feelings are “me” and should be expressed—and which are not and should not be.”
07 Sep 2016
In our first post in this two-part blog series (insert link), we examined the potential problem of your pastor¹ struggling to be a friend and to have true, honest friendships with others. This can occur because they are often expected to constantly give and shepherd more than they receive, they fear what will happen if they reveal deep struggles and sins, and they worry about the damage that their reputations and families will incur. Nowhere are the consequences higher than when a pastor is struggling with sexual issues and sins.
“I stood in that pulpit week in and week out. I looked into the eyes of a hundred people every week, people who really didn’t know me at all. And I wanted to shout out to them, ‘I’m dying up here!,’ but I just couldn’t.”
But Scripture speaks of the necessity of real, heart-depth friends and friendships as a way out of these problems.
So, what can you do to help? Here are four ways you can help your pastor find the kind of support and friendship that he needs.
First, pray for your pastor. This may seem like a non-starter. Isn’t that something a church member would do automatically? Well, yes —but many people don’t. Many people only pray in general or duty-specific ways for their pastors and other leaders: “Help Pastor Kevin to preach faithfully.” I’m encouraging you to intercede specifically and frequently for your pastor.
How will you know how to pray specifically for your pastor? Ask him. Believe me, there are precious few church members who ask that simple question of the men who shepherd them. You’ll not only learn how to pray, but you’ll encourage the heart of your pastor and perhaps even build a foundation on which a friendship might grow.
Jesus instructed Peter, James, and John to pray specifically that they would not enter into temptation in particular ways (Matthew 26:41). James instructs us to pray powerfully and specifically for each other, for the Spirit to intervene in particular ways in particular circumstances (James 5:13-16). We should pray likewise for our pastors—that the Spirit would make them wise to recognize and stand firm against the schemes of the devil (Ephesians 6:11). We should pray that the Lord would preserve them particularly from sexual temptation and sin, which are common to all people (1 Corinthians 10:13). Pray that the Lord would lead them into deep friendships and make those friendships effective for his purposes.
Second, show hospitality to your pastor. Invite him (and his family) into your home for dinner—not for a pastoral visit, but for pure and simple fellowship. Tell him that’s the purpose of the visit: He has a night off just to enjoy your hospitality and for you to get to know him (and his family²) in order to care for him better.
Another way to show hospitality is to invite your pastor out to breakfast, lunch, or coffee, and for you to pay.³ Use this as an opportunity for you to “pastor” your pastor: Ask him how he’s doing, how you might pray for him in ministry, and how he’s dealing with the temptations, stresses, and fears that anyone in the church might have. Your pastor is a fallen human being just like you. A theological degree should not be confused with sinlessness or perfect faith. Your pastor needs someone to talk to, someone with whom to be honest, someone who is going to have his back and the backs of his family members. There are few pastors who aren’t under spiritual attack in some way. As their brothers (and sisters), we are called to join in his battle—to lay down our lives for him (1 John 3:16). Again, this is a way for you to build a foundation of trust and friendship, which will be a blessing to your pastor.
Third, tell your pastor about Harvest USA. Tell them about the ministry, particularly our ministry to pastors who struggle sexually. Ask your pastor to visit harvestusa.org and to look under the “Connect” tab, then click on the “Help for Pastors” option. Harvest USA offers confidential and biblical help at no cost to pastors who are struggling with pornography, lust, or same-sex attraction.
Fourth, encourage your pastor to be involved with others for friendship, accountability, and encouragement. Ask your pastor if he has a friend with whom he can speak candidly, a friend who knows him and loves him well enough to bear the secrets he would never tell anyone else. Unless your pastor is extraordinary, the answer is probably “no.” Exhort your pastor to pray for such a friend and to pray for the humility and grace to open up to this friend. Commit to pray along with your pastor for this kind of friendship to develop. It could be that you might become that very friend.
In summary, pastors need friends as much as anyone else, but they may be less likely to already possess, or to develop those friendships, on their own.
I recall one pastor who came to Harvest USA for help about fifteen years ago. He came to us only after his twenty-five-year string of affairs with women in the churches he served was exposed, and he lost his ministry and his marriage. He told me, “I stood in that pulpit week in and week out. I looked into the eyes of a hundred people every week, people who really didn’t know me at all. And I wanted to shout out to them, ‘I’m dying up here!,’ but I just couldn’t.”
That pastor’s story is more common than you know. Be a part of making a significant difference in the life of one man—your pastor—so that he can stand with confidence in the Lord Jesus and shepherd you and Christ’s church well.
¹ This article is written with male pastors in mind, but the same principles could be applied to women leaders in the church as well. In my experience, women leaders are just as isolated as men in leadership, and in just as great a danger to fall into hopelessness and sin.
² Pastor’s wives and children need care and prayer as well. Hospitality affords a unique opportunity for women to pursue and encourage a pastor’s wife, and for one’s children to befriend a pastor’s children.
³Propriety would dictate that only men would invite male pastors out to exclusive meetings of this sort to avoid the appearance of impropriety and to prevent any potentially tempting situations.
31 Aug 2016
That might seem like a strange idea: pastors¹ needing a friend or friends. After all, a church’s pastor is the one person who generally knows everyone else in the church. He spends his days talking with people, counseling them, conferring with other pastors, devoting time to prayer and Bible study. He’s the most plugged-in person in the church. How much more connected does he need to be? Doesn’t he already have a lot of friends? What’s the concern here?
The concern here is helping a pastor be who he is on the outside with who he is on the inside. And nowhere does that split occur more than in the area of sexual integrity. In a job filled with stress and built-in isolation, and living in a world that promotes sensuality and sexuality as the “stuff” of life, that combination can be a flashpoint of real danger.
Let me suggest that there is generally a vast difference between the quantity of relationships a person has and the quality of those relationships. In other words, it’s possible for someone to know many people, but for the nature of those relationships to be uni-directional (one-way).
Pastors are uniquely positioned to be in such one-way relationships. I call them “one-way” because of the power differential that exists between the pastor and those attending a church. What I mean is this: Regardless of how you or your denomination sees your pastor, you still see him in some way as the leader, the guy in charge. He’s your shepherd. As a result, the nature of the relationships a pastor has with the members of his church are generally focused around him fulfilling that role. He preaches, he teaches, he counsels, he administrates, he shows unfailing love, compassion, and strength in your worst and most desperate times. But rare indeed is the instance in which a pastor receives that kind of care, leadership, and shepherding from someone else in his church, even an elder or other leader.
That power differential also creates something of a barrier in your pastor’s ability to share honestly and openly with others. Because he is the “authority” in the local church, the one who is called to bear the burdens of others, the one who is supposed to have all of the answers, the super-Christian who never does anything particularly egregious, your pastor is less likely to share with anyone else the doubts, fears, shameful thoughts and attitudes, and the sin in his own heart and life. After all, what would all who have turned to him in the past think? The potential damage to his reputation, to his family, to the church, to his career is too great a risk.
Even a pastor’s peers can seem unsafe as potential friends. Other men in full-time ministry might seem likely candidates for the kind of close, intimate friendships that foster confession of sin and unbelief. Unfortunately, the isolated lives of pastors often lead them to feel so wary of being real with others that they intentionally and unintentionally wall themselves off, allowing no one to see past the façade of piety and professionalism.
This is a very dangerous place to be. Scripture speaks to the necessity of real, heart-depth friends and friendships. Paul says in Ephesians 4:11-16 that individual Christians grow in faith and freedom from the power of sin through friends who “speak the truth in love” with each other. In Galatians 6:1-2, we are exhorted to “bear one another’s burdens” of temptation and sin. Likewise, we are to restore each other to the body of Christ and to God (2 Corinthians 5:18-21). The person who has only superficial and polite friendships has no access to these ordinary means of spiritual growth and sanctification.
Looking at the same issue from another perspective, the writer of Proverbs says in 18:1-2 that the person who isolates himself from others denies godly wisdom and understanding. The “preacher” in Ecclesiastes warns that it is spiritually and physically dangerous to be friendless (4:9-12). There are many, many other exhortations in Scripture to pursue deep, life-affirming, sanctifying friendships and to flee from isolation into community.
I do want to be clear that not every pastor struggles with pornography or sin of a sexual nature. But, as do all people, all pastors struggle with something that marginalizes the Gospel in their hearts, lives, and ministries. And many pastors do struggle sexually, the vast majority of them in secret for the reasons outlined above. The damage to their own faith, their families, and their churches is substantial.
Whether the struggle is relatively small or great, most pastors fear being real with others. The risk seems simply too significant. Unless they cultivate real friendships, they’ll remain isolated in the midst of people all around them.
What can we do for them?
¹This article is written with male pastors in mind, but the same principles could be applied to women leaders in the church as well. In my experience, many who lead women are just as isolated and in just as great a danger to fall into hopelessness and sin.
We are getting an increasing number of requests from parents, pastors, friends, and others in the the church for good, biblically sound resources to help understand and address issues of transgenderism. There’s a lot of good stuff scattered around the web, and we’re trying to collect some of them into a Resource Page. http://dev-harvestusa.pantheonsite.io/transgenderism-resources/
The Resource Page is being updated as we come across more articles, sermons, blog posts, etc., that we believe are helpful from a gospel perspective. So check back from time to time. Just click the link to the page above. We hope what we have gathered will help you think biblically and compassionately.
14 Jul 2016
As the church steps into the trenches of the sexual struggles with which her people are wrestling, it is encountering a new reality and new challenges in how to do faithful ministry. As the culture continues to push into the church, the following “givens” impact how Christians are thinking about sexuality:
- Increasing cultural acceptance of homosexuality, especially among millennials
- Growing acceptance of a genderfluid and genderless society
- An awareness of Christians who experience same-sex attraction (SSA) but confusion about how to help them
- Legalization of gay marriage
- The encroachment of pro-gay theology and its inroads into the evangelical church
- The trend toward casual sexual relationships and co-habitation
- The ubiquity of pornography and the steady erosion of biblical sexual ethics
All of the above signals the need for churches to think strategically about how to “do ministry” as the culture continues to push into the church. John Freeman has spoken to church leaders and presbyteries, helping to bring awareness of the pressing issues that need attention. John highlights four things churches must address.
1. Leadership—insuring everyone is on the same page
While leadership certainly means your key leaders—pastors, elders, deacons, etc.—it also includes your leadership volunteers like women’s leaders, youth leaders, Sunday school and adult teachers, small group leaders, and so on. The importance of all leaders being on the same page, theologically and pastorally, has never been more critical. Asking the following questions will (hopefully) result in dialogue and clarification.
Do you know your current leaders’ views on sex and sexuality? Considering the “givens” listed above, how do you approach your leadership in determining what they believe and where they might be feeling pressure to change? We used to take it for granted that leaders would adhere to biblical sexual ethics, but some are changing their views and remaining silent about it. How do you get everyone on the same page?
Do you know if your leaders are struggling here? As important as what they believe, do you know if some of your leaders are struggling here? People, and especially leaders, hide sexual struggles. How can you call them to be honest, and in what ways do you help them? We know that when leadership falls sexually, it deeply injures the church and how people see Christ.
How will your leaders approach sexual issues pastorally? Key leaders have the greatest influence, so it’s more important than ever to make sure they believe fully in what the Scriptures say and will speak that compassionately to those who struggle. Sometimes that’s not easy to do, but true compassion is grounded in speaking God’s truth, not in defining truth as we wish it to be.
How would your church address a leadership candidate who experiences same-sex attraction? As we call believers to openness and honesty about their sexual struggles, we should expect to find men and women who live with same-sex attraction and are living faithfully according to Scripture. When they pursue leadership roles in the church, what help and assistance do they need?
2. Membership—confronting complex issues
The culture greatly influences church members. Confusion is growing as pro-gay theology, rooted in secular thought, influences believers who know too little of Scripture. How will your church in this new reality address some of the following scenarios?
What if someone identifies as a gay Christian? Is this a private matter known only to some, or is this becoming public? Do you know what this person means by adopting this identity label?
What about someone who supports gay marriage and homosexuality? Again, is this a private opinion or an advocacy position? What is a pastoral approach to members whose views are in opposition to Scripture? What if someone with these views wants to join your church?
Are you talking about sex and sexuality to prospective members in your membership classes? Do you approach the issue from a discipline angle, or first from a Christian worldview perspective? Or do you not mention the topic at all, and if so, why not?
What if a same-sex couple comes to faith (one or both)? What if they are legally married? How do you approach the complex situation of pastorally shepherding a family, particularly when there are children, when the parents are legally married?
What about church discipline? While recognizing the complex issues involved with sexual sin, where might church discipline come into play as someone is being shepherded through the ups and downs that go with this struggle? Is there an approach that is more helpful, or less so?
3. Church Culture—what kind of church culture do you want to nurture?
Do you have a sense of the culture in your church in how it relates to the culture “out there?” How does your church address the new reality of sexual issues that are prominent in the culture? How do you speak about them publicly, from the pulpit, in Sunday school classes, in the things your church writes? There is a big difference between churches that speak harshly about sexual issues and those that say hardly anything at all. The first approach leaves people hiding, and the other leaves people in confusion. That we need to talk about these issues has never been more critical, but the words we use (or do not use) are equally important. How do you speak to those who are opposed to his ways; and to those who are confused about what Scripture says; and to those who want to obey but struggle to submit to the Lordship of Christ in this area? Our approach, our words, our faithfulness to Scripture, and our presence with those who struggle are the many ways we show who God is to them.
4. Policies and Procedures—possible dangers ahead
Two seismic changes have transformed the landscape for ministry: the legalization of same-sex marriage, and the use, or threat, of non-discrimination laws and regulations, known as sexual orientation and gender identity ordinances. Churches with a history and tradition of opening their doors to the community for weddings and receptions, local community events, outside groups that use the church to meet—all of these connections may become problematic in light of the increasing use of anti-discrimination ordinances.
These new laws and court rulings mean that churches must carefully think about ministry in three key areas.
While this issue gets a lot of press, the reality is that the First Amendment seems quite solid in protecting ministers from performing same-sex marriages. However, the matter is more uncertain if your church has been open to hosting outside weddings and receptions. What steps can your church take to remain open to traditional weddings while not hosting wedding events that oppose biblical truth?
Building usage by outside groups
Apart from weddings, building use for other outside events might become more difficult, particularly for churches that rent their facilities or allow them to be used by the community. The challenge for churches that want to remain invested in their local community is to determine how to both invite and define that involvement, in ways that will avoid potential lawsuits.
Anti-discrimination laws regarding employment are another new reality that is increasingly stepping on religious turf. Churches that discipline ordained staff for misconduct are again protected by the First Amendment. But addressing non-ordained staff behavior is not so clear. What if a staff person comes out as transgender, or a staff person legally marries someone of the same gender? Gender fluidity and sexual orientation are major battlegrounds for employment law today. The area of employment law for religious groups seems to be up for grabs today. How churches will be affected is not yet clear, but they should now find ways to try to protect themselves while also shepherding staff who are struggling in these areas.
We’ve just scratched the surface on a few of the crucial issues churches are facing with these new realities. Harvest USA can help! We can help you think through these issues and conduct a healthy conversation among your leaders.
Contact John Freeman at [email protected] to get the conversation started.
07 Jul 2016
In January 2016, Ellen Dykas returned to Taiwan, East Asia, to teach a two-week course entitled “Biblical Sexuality and Ministry to Strugglers.”
I was going back to Taiwan to speak to twenty-nine students who all spoke Chinese. Back to China Reformed Theological Seminary in Taipei, to help train men and women preparing for ministry. They came from Taiwan, main-land China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Canada, and Australia. I had been there before, in 2013, when I first addressed sexual struggles in Asia, and I was eager to return. I hoped to meet up with some students who I taught three years ago. As a teacher, you always wonder if anything you said or taught made a difference.
Upon arriving, I learned that Taiwan was considering legalizing gay marriage. The news dismayed my students, and I gave them insight into what Christians in the USA faced when the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage last summer. We found common ground as Christians living so far from each other: As sexual sin outside of God’s design becomes the norm, standing firm for biblical truth may cost us more than it has in the past. We agreed that ministry would need to be more strategic and nuanced than ever before in order to speak into the culture.
But we also concurred that ministry still needs to be relational and personal, appropriately caring for each individual. I met up with one of my students from 2013 and heard her story of parenting her gay-identified daughter. She expressed fresh sorrow over her daughter’s life, but shared with me new insight about the faith to which God is calling her as she loves her daughter in a new way. She recalled my teaching from three years ago, that telling her daughter to “Stop!” would not lead to true repentance. She began learning how to engage her daughter relationally while also holding true to God’s design for sexuality and relationships. It is so good to know that God uses even my words to strengthen his people!
How does the church address sexual struggles in Asia? Much the same as we do, but with one very big difference: In Asia, the church hardly talks about sexuality at all. A powerful culture of shame encourages hiding and silence on an even a deeper level than what we see in churches in the USA. And the silence from church leaders is much “louder” than here, compounding the confusion and despair of Christians struggling alone.
But by offering courses like the one I taught, China Reformed Seminary is beginning to change that culture of silence. What the Asian church needs now are solid biblical resources translated into their languages.
I have one more memory to share: The seminary partners with a local biblical counseling ministry. On Saturday, between my two weeks of classes, the counseling ministry hosted a community lecture at which I was the featured speaker. You can imagine my surprise when I realized that the lecture made the front page of the Taipei Christian newspaper! Serving with Harvest USA has certainly led to many unexpected adventures!
Also, here is one last prayer request: God is expanding Harvest USA’s influence outside of the United States, and it’s exciting! I will have the opportunity to teach on biblical sexuality at a national women’s conference in Columbia this coming July 2016, but I need some special funding to make this happen. I need to raise $1500 to cover the costs, so that Columbians will be able to attend. Tax-deductible donations may be made by check to Colombia Reformed (please add a note that this is for Ellen Dykas, but do not write that on the memo line!) and mailed to: Colombia Reformed, P.O. Box 102, Lovettsville, VA 20180. Thank you!
09 Jun 2016
It’s easy to go on idol hunts. Do you know what I mean? A student might be sitting in front of me, talking about how hard life has been for him, how sexual sin just keeps dominating him—and I’m on the prowl! I’m hanging on to every word, thinking, That smells like worship! Is that an idol!?
To be an idol-maker is to be a sinner. And for many of us, the sinner category is the only category out of which we operate when we minister to students. I’ll confess: I tend to love both quick fixes and be the “fixer” of people. And when I’m operating from the sinner category, it’s easy to call students to simple repentance and demand quick change.
But simply emphasizing this category results in conversations like these:
“Dude, repent. You just need to stop this. It’s destroying you.”
These conversations often result in impatience and frustration for both me and the student I’m trying to help. But, like all emphases, the category of “sinner” doesn’t give us the total picture. God gives us another category, one that nuances and deepens our ministry to students.
Sufferers. Not Just Sinners.
The Bible tells us that our students are not simply sinners; they are sufferers as well. In fact, the Scriptures make suffering a stipulation for sharing in the coming glory of Christ: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, their heirs—fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:16-17).
Paul says, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake…” (Philippians 1:29). Doesn’t a large part of our suffering as believers have to do with the “passions of the flesh” that “wage war” against our souls (1 Peter 2:11)?
All of us are walking battlegrounds, hosts to the war between flesh and spirit. As new creations in Christ, we bear the scars. The very presence of the “old man” waging war against our new selves means that we are sufferers.
What are some sufferings that students might face? For a student who struggles with same-sex attraction, her gifts and personality might not match up to the particular cultural group in which she lives. Feelings of isolation, shame, and being out of place might result from not living up to a certain societal ideal of what it means to be a woman.
She didn’t choose her gifts! And she didn’t choose to have a peer or parent say, “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you like to do X like the other girls?” Her gifts that don’t correspond to cultural norms or those comments made by peers or parents are not sins on her part; they are her sufferings.
For a student who struggles with pornography, his home life might be an absolute mess. His mom and dad might constantly fight. Perhaps he perceives porn as his only escape and refuge from life’s storms. But he didn’t choose his home life! It is a part of his sufferings.
What Difference Does This Make?
While students who struggle sexually need to hear the call to repentance that comes from the sinner category, they also need the compassion, empathy, patience, and oftentimes listening ear that come from the sufferer category.
The way we talk to a robber and the way we talk to someone who has been robbed differ drastically. We would usually be stern with the robber. But how would we speak to the one who has been robbed? We would be gentle. We would be compassionate and empathetic. We would be patient as they work through feelings of insecurity and fear. We might simply be quiet, letting our presence do the talking. As sexual sin rears its head, students, many of whom are new creations in Christ, are simultaneously the ones robbing themselves and the ones being robbed of the joy that Christ brings.
Sometimes we need a firm hand to guide us. Other times we need a gentle hand to sustain us. Sometimes we need to hear about our need to rest in our identity in Christ. Other times we need to be told to pick up our tools and start working. The truths we give to students shift depending on the situation.
The category of sufferer provides our students with the truth that, though they sin, they are not defined by their sins. They can cry out to the Lord for help in the very moment that they are being assaulted by sin and temptation. This category also helps students draw near to the Lord who knows what it is like to suffer. He willingly suffered in their place and is with them now in the valley.
We might not operate out of the “sufferer” category every time, but when students are so beaten down and broken over their sexual sin that they can’t find the strength to move, this can be a useful tool. This category will help students find the helping hand of Christ who is God With Us and gives us, as ministers, godly and nuanced patience, compassion, empathy, and love for the students under our care.
James Sutton, Associate Pastor, Christ the King PCA in Raleigh, NC, shares his church’s experience of partnering with Harvest USA.
We’ve long known sexual brokenness was an issue in our church, even though nobody talked about it. We’re happy to confess pride, fundamental forms of idolatry, destructive anger, jealousy, etc. However, invite us to shine a light onto our experience of sexual brokenness and we get a little sheepish. Doesn’t everyone?
But the Bible reminds us that it’s pretty clear those struggles are going to be there. It even anticipates that we’re going to do our best job of convincing each other and ourselves that they aren’t there. In general, we lived up to that prediction. For a long time, our church’s culture was like a mutually agreed-upon conspiracy of silence.
But something amazing happened a few years ago. Some of our members began pointing flashlights in the direction of their hearts and, in particular, the scary sections hiding their sexual struggles. Some of them just didn’t have a choice, but many did. Some of them were doing it because they actually believed the gospel that their pastors were preaching.
At first, it was as difficult as you might imagine. As we were shepherding our church, we kept running into all kinds of fallout from porn addictions. Then, we’d start developing leaders in our church only to discover they were engaged in some disqualifying sexual sin or another. There were things that we wanted to do, but so many of our potential leaders were being taken out by these sins.
Slowly, quietly, we found ourselves with a group of guys who wanted to meet regularly to talk about some of their deepest, darkest sins. . . They didn’t want to live in darkness anymore.
But even though it was hard and frustrating at times, it was also beautiful. Slowly, quietly, we found ourselves with a group of guys who wanted to meet regularly to talk about some of their deepest, darkest sins. They were eager to apply the gospel to each other’s hearts, to brainstorm about how to help each other, and to pray for one another because they trusted that Christ could do miracles. They didn’t want to live in darkness anymore.
God provided for us by introducing us to Harvest USA. A group of men began to go through Dave White’s workbook, Sexual Sanity for Men: Re-Creating Your Mind in a Crazy World. We had a biblical counselor in our church who volunteered to meet with these guys on a weekly basis. This counselor also took the time to meet with the guys one on one. All kinds of fruit began popping up in their lives.
Not long after, we had a men’s retreat, led by Harvest USA. At that retreat, another group of guys started to open up about their sexual struggles. Encouraged by the fruitfulness of the first group, we started discussing the need to have something similar to the book study on an on-going basis. The trouble was, the counselor who had been working with them moved and was living on the other side of the country.
We decided that the fruit we were seeing wasn’t just the work of this counselor. We decided to operate like it was the Holy Spirit at work, bringing the gospel through the body of Christ.
So we stepped up our game, so to speak. We needed additional help, and that meant training for the men who were already leading. We contacted Harvest USA and were delighted when they informed us of their Partner Ministries training.
They sent us some basic materials, and then we set up a time for their staff to video teleconference with our group to talk through a suggested model for how to set up a standing group. A lot of their practical suggestions were soaked in wisdom and would’ve taken us years to figure out on our own. They were incredibly encouraging, and we organized a weekend for one of their staff to meet with our core group.
The training experience included a full complement of helpful tools as well as some great tailor-made advice on how to apply those tools. Like us, they believed the beautiful fruit we were seeing was the work of the Spirit, and so they taught in a way that drew us to seek him more.
It’s encouraging for our group to have an experienced staff “on call” whose wisdom they can draw from when they encounter particularly challenging situations. God uses their experience, their humility, and their training to help empower our church to continue to shine the Spirit’s light on the dark places we all have in our souls. Overall, it’s one of the most exciting things God has done in our church.