Have you heard a sermon on singleness lately? If you’re honest, as a single Christian, perhaps you bristle at the thought of the topic. Maybe you’ve been wounded or just plain frustrated by some of the messages you’ve heard—likely on themes of contentment, sexual purity, and guarding against selfishness. I heartily affirm these as relevant themes for godly single Christians to consider. But when was the last time you, my single brother or sister, considered how the abundant riches of Christ can be uniquely experienced in your singleness?
Do you regularly relish the wealth of Christ that is yours to be received and enjoyed right now? Surely there’s more to life than just holding on for your condition of singleness to change.
Whether you’re single and waiting or have become single through the painful loss of widowhood or unwanted divorce, this post is particularly for you. Still, because all true believers are brought into irrevocable union with Christ, all Christian readers can rejoice over these truths regardless of their marital status.
What are some features of singleness that can draw out—or perhaps even enhance—some of the blessings of a believer’s union with Christ?
Have you heard about the pitfalls of being single? Perhaps you’ve heard negative discussions around things like excess free time, the need for wisdom in relationships, temptation toward sexual sin, and concerns about selfishness. These are all real concerns, and faithful singles should pursue obedience in them. However, have you considered your time of singleness as an opportunity for undivided devotion to Christ? For simplicity in your devotion to him?
In 1 Corinthians, Paul gives the most explicit instructions for marriage and singleness found in the New Testament: “But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that” (1 Cor. 7:28). He goes on to say:
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. (vv. 32–34)
I believe Paul is describing a simplicity that lends itself to an undivided heart toward Christ. Is Paul saying here that those in a season of widowhood or singleness have simple, worry-free lives? I don’t think so. But one of the opportunities unique to singles is to pursue undivided simplicity and devotion to Christ, while looking to the reward. Christ himself, and communion with him, is that reward.
Christ Our Reward
Consider Jesus’s words in the Great Commission, as he’s sending his people out to fulfill his mission: “Behold! I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Or when Jesus speaks of his Holy Spirit and says, “And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever” (John 14:16, emphasis mine). Is this not one of the things our hearts long for most? We long for someone who will make a permanent covenant with us—one who will be with us forever, who will be “our person,” our closest companion. Jesus himself promises to be nothing less than this to us, by faith, in this present age.
These are not mere platitudes or simple ideas to appease us as Christians. These are rich truths to be received, meditated upon, and taken hold of by faith! Dear Christian brother or sister in a season of singleness, would you consider today the riches of Christ? They’re not only yours for all eternity but can be received by faith today! Would you take hold of them in Christ with all your heart? By prayer? In community with the family of God?
Receiving Christ in a Season of Unmet Longings
Maybe these words sting a little for some. How can I enjoy Jesus when I’m experiencing the pain of unmet desires? What if Jesus seems like a consolation prize to settle for? I want to affirm the good desire for romance, sexual expression, and companionship that are found in a godly marriage—but even this good thing only points to the greater reality found in Christ.
Let’s listen to Paul’s words again: “I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:35). Paul’s goal for this exhortation is clear: undivided devotion to the Lord. Just before this, Paul, in speaking to all believers, says:
This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (vv. 29–31)
Even those in godly marriages are called to live in such a way that the glory of Christ is at the forefront because the present form of this world is passing away.
If this idea doesn’t get you excited, I would encourage you to consider that God created your longings and therefore knows how to fulfill them better than any other. Psalm 16:11 makes a stunning claim about God: “In your presence is fullness of joy, at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” The life of a single Christian, united to Christ, can be truly rich. As Sam Allberry writes, single believers have an opportunity to display the sufficiency of God’s promises in the gospel and his love for us relationally.
Ask God to help you see things the way he sees them. How might your perspective need to shift to align with his holy and righteous view? He longs to meet you and help you as your loving Lord.
Invite God into the painful moments when you feel the sting of being single. Another wedding without a plus one? Feeling left behind in life as your friends move on? These moments of sorrow also include an invitation for you to have Christ himself bear your burdens with you.
Ask God to search you for ungodly attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors around your singleness. Repent and turn from these things. Maybe you just don’t believe that Christ can fulfill the deepest longings of your heart. Maybe you’ve tried to seek him in the past and it didn’t seem to “work.” Don’t do this alone! Seek the help of trusted brothers and sisters walking with you along the journey.
Wait on the Lord as you long to receive the good gifts he has for you in your singleness. Jesus is the greatest gift. There are no guarantees about when or how he will show up; be on the lookout! It helps to keep in mind that we still experience the felt comforts of Jesus amid a broken world this side of heaven. Have your heart and eyes wide open for the ways in which he is meeting you with his sustaining grace in the present even as he points you toward the ultimate fulfillment of your all your longings in heaven—namely, perfect fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Single brothers and sisters, let’s pursue our glorious Savior, Jesus Christ, with all that we have, in whatever season God has called us to for today. He not only gives us good gifts in every season, but he himself is our portion and our eternal delight (Ps. 16). Enjoy your unshakeable union with Christ today. He is worthy!
Caitlin McCaffrey is our new Women’s Ministry staff member and started with us in July 2022. Please consider joining her financial support team here!
10 Sep 2020
We serve not so that people will serve attend to us in return, but because we are ultimately serving our King. We live for him first and foremost.
To learn more about this topic, consider purchasing one of our resources, such as Sexual Sanity for Men by David White and What’s Wrong with a Little Porn When You’re Single? by R. Nicholas Black. When you buy these books from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
You can also read the blog, “Techniques Don’t Offer Life—Christ Does,” which corresponds to this video.
09 Oct 2019
One of the loneliest seasons of my life was when I was a college student living in a little apartment in Philadelphia. In the midst of a near-constant crowd, I was deeply hurting but no one knew or would’ve had the capacity to help. Being surrounded by people all the time while feeling “unknown” made everything worse.
Now, despite the ever-present opportunity to connect through social media, loneliness seems to be a growing epidemic. Loneliness is an excruciating experience because, as image-bearers, we are designed for relationship with one another, reflecting our relational, triune God.
This is underscored in the creation account in Genesis 2. After the repeated refrain throughout Genesis 1, in which we hear that “God saw that it was good,” the Creator now looks at his handiwork and makes a jarring assessment, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (v. 18, emphasis added). God’s solution to Adam’s aloneness was Eve.
This may be encouraging if you’re married, but where does this leave singles? Not to mention those languishing in difficult marriages. Some say there is no lonelier place than a bad marriage!
Although marriage and child-rearing are the Old Testament norm for humanity, a dramatic shift occurs in the New Testament. When Jesus is questioned about the practice of divorce, he brings his listeners back to God’s original intent at creation. But he concludes his teaching about the permanence of marriage with a profound declaration: “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (Matthew 19:11–12).
Instead of insisting on the importance of marriage and children to fulfill the creation mandate, Jesus proclaims that some will choose singleness for the sake of God’s kingdom. This is the first time in the Bible that singleness is depicted as a desirable and even exalted state!
Paul takes Jesus’s exhortation further, encouraging believers at Corinth to seriously consider lifelong singleness. What’s the reason? Because spouses are divided in their loyalties, wanting to serve the kingdom but also wanting to bless their spouse (1 Corinthians 7:6–9, 25–40). Do you see what he’s saying? In view of the radical reorienting call to serve in Jesus’s kingdom, Scripture understands that mission is so worthy, it ought to be prioritized over the creational calling to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Paul’s concern is for believers to maintain “undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:35). To this end, he encourages lifelong celibacy, although he freely acknowledges that it is not sinful to marry.
How can Jesus and Paul pull off this switcheroo against the previously prescribed remedy for humanity’s loneliness? What has changed? The Church.
Singleness is a viable, perhaps even preferable, option because now there is a new-creation antidote for humanity’s loneliness. Or to put it another way, we now have access to the true community God intended for his people.
In 1 Corinthians 12:12–31, Paul describes the church as a body with all the parts inextricably linked together. Note the “one-flesh” language of Genesis as Paul explains our interconnectedness as Christians! The social and communal reality of the church’s common life in Christ is the reason Paul encourages singleness for the sake of Christ’s kingdom. God’s people do not have to marry because there should be no lonely Christian in the Body of Christ. The church is called to be salt and light, reflecting genuine community in our increasingly fractured society.
There should be no lonely Christian in the Body of Christ.
And this includes married people. The fact they are “one flesh” should not be understood to mean that any couple is self-sufficient apart from the church. As one flesh, married people are corporately a single body part and still need the rest of Christ’s body. Marriage is an exclusive, covenantal relationship, but it can’t be your only relationship. As it is not good for any individual to be alone, it is also not healthy for any specific relationship to be alone, in isolation from the wider network of relationships God has designed to shape our lives in the body of Christ.
So, what steps need to be taken to enfold singles into their rightful place in the body? Ephesians 4:15–16 tells us that the body only reaches maturity as “each part is working properly.” This means if singles are not fully engaged and exercising their gifts in the church, the maturity of the entire body is significantly hindered.
If singles are not fully engaged and exercising their gifts in the church, the maturity of the entire body is significantly hindered.
Where does your own church need to grow in this area? There are two equally important aspects to consider: first, making sure there are no lonely people in the body. Second, don’t see singles as only lonely, needy people. They are gifted, equipped, and necessary for the health of your church! Married people need singles as much as singles need married people.
If you are lonely, whether single or struggling in a hard marriage, even if the church is loving well, know there are places where only Jesus can meet you. Know that the ultimate Bridegroom does not leave you alone; he gives you his name. He wants to possess you as his very own. That’s why Jesus came—to win his bride. The Spirit within you means Jesus is as close as he could possibly be—far closer than a spouse. He shares every thought and experiences every emotion. This is partly why the Spirit’s intercession for us is referred to as “groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). Especially as a single, it is crucial to embrace the truth of his presence with you and find ways to open yourself to this reality.
Editor’s Note: This blog is adapted from David White’s new book, God, You, & Sex: A Profound Mystery, which is available now. When you buy God, You, & Sex from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry
01 Aug 2019
Harvest USA is committed to helping churches disciple men and women dealing with life-dominating sexual struggles and sin. Theo and Brittany, who now run a ministry out of their church, one that Harvest USA helped start, give testimony to the power of the Body of Christ in shaping faith and lives.
Theo: It started in college during freshman orientation. Brittany and I met during a pivotal season in our lives. Brittany’s mom had passed away that fall, and I was facing the reality that I struggled with same-sex attraction. When we met, we sensed that there was a connection, but thought we would just be friends forever—nothing more. We clung to each other that first semester, becoming fast friends—sharing our backgrounds, secrets, wishes, and dreams. Brittany provided comfort to me in a time I needed it.
Brittany: Throughout most of college, Theo and I went our separate ways. I buried myself in my schoolwork. I was an art major, and it was demanding enough to justify escaping from my grief. Losing my mom was something I ran from, and college came at the perfect time. Theo dove head first into the athlete world—morning weights, long practices, and parties all week.
Theo: When we graduated, we both moved to Charlotte, NC. Over the next year, we both hit rock bottom. Brittany was in a godless relationship, making poor decisions, and planning a future that didn’t fit with what she believed. I was drowning myself in the party scene, looking for validation, acceptance, and whatever made me feel “masculine.” I was desperate to escape my developing attraction to other men, sporadically giving into these desires.
Brittany: I just signed a lease with my boyfriend to move into an apartment the following weekend. My mom’s best friend lived in Charlotte and was like a second mother to me. She got wind of my plans and confronted me in a way no one else could. She spoke as a mother, a friend, and a believer in Christ. Her boldness gave me the courage to take my first step in trusting the Lord, deciding to not live with my boyfriend. Throughout the next year, with the help of my new small group leaders at church, I felt convicted to walk away from this relationship. I saw the contrast in who God was asking me to be and who I had become.
I didn’t know a soul at the church, but within a year, some of these guys became my first genuine, healthy male friendships.
Theo: The Lord intervened in my life by watching Brittany and her involvement in church. I saw her trusting the Lord. I felt a pull to the church—like it could be an answer to my struggle with sexual sin. The only Christian I knew in Charlotte was Brittany, so I reached out to her to ask about finding a small group.
She pointed me to a men’s group. I didn’t know a soul at the church, but within a year, some of these guys became my first genuine, healthy male friendships. Later that year, we went on a retreat. A friend asked some hard questions that enabled me to share my struggles with same-sex attraction, as well as my patterns of pornography and hook-ups associated with these sinful desires. That weekend, I felt the Holy Spirit push me to tell the other guys on the retreat. This was my first act of obedience and was the start of my healing.
Following the retreat, the guys in the group pursued me, asking questions and praying for me. It was the first time that I truly felt like I had a church family who was not afraid to enter the mess of my life and help me out of it, pointing me to Christ. The pastor of our community regularly met with me—he never made me feel ashamed but encouraged me and prayed for me. Coming into the light was critical for my walk with God to grow.
It was the first time that I truly felt like I had a church family who was not afraid to enter the mess of my life and help me out of it, pointing me to Christ.
Brittany: My friendship with Theo grew stronger and more intimate. We shared our discovery of God and our excitement for the church. People told us frequently that we would be good together, but we were just friends. Best friends. I heard the expression once, “As you run the race toward heaven and continue to pursue holiness in the Lord, look to your left and right and see who is running beside of you.” We were always beside each other, finding new ways to get involved, to serve, to gather our community. Eventually, Theo started to see as more than friends, but I was oblivious. Yet my love for him was growing.
Theo: When I realized I wanted to pursue Brittany as more than a friend, I was terrified of her rejection. After all, what woman would marry a man who admits to having an attraction to other men? It felt like a disease—and I wasn’t “healed” yet. I finally told her about the work God had been doing in my life. I confessed my sexual sin to her. Brittany told me later that this was the moment she fell in love with me. Six months later, we started dating, and soon after, we would be two of the grass-root leaders of the Set Free Ministry at our church, dedicated to walking alongside men and women who come out of the shadows of sexual sin in search of the healing power of the Gospel.
Set Free Ministry was launched with the help of Harvest USA in 2015 as a ministry of Christ Covenant Church in Charlotte, NC. The leadership team consists of ten leaders who shepherd men, women, wives, and parents of those who are struggling. Were it not for the men, women, and pastors who pursued us, two young wanderers, we may have never found the church, the Lord, or each other. Our God orchestrates his timing over everything, and it’s always perfect. Praise the Lord for his handiwork and the, sometimes messy, pursuit of his children!
This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of harvestusa magazine. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.
01 Aug 2019
Where do you begin when someone in your church tells you they struggle with sexual sin of some sort? What is the first thing you say? And after that, what specific help can you give? What if you have never done something like this before?
The answer is not a series of precise to-dos laid out in sequence. It first starts in your view of personal growth and change. And that brings up a much bigger question, the one you must begin with if you, and your church, will effectively help strugglers. It’s about discipleship.
How is the Church called to disciple its people? Not in terms of content, but of practice? What does discipleship in the local church actually look like? What should it look like?
It can be difficult for churches to talk about discipleship because a precise definition is often a moving target. Some would say that discipleship encompasses everything that the church does to help people follow Jesus. Others would say that discipleship is one very specific educational model, counted as one of the many ministries of the church. If we look at the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of the early church, one might find that both of those perspectives of discipleship can and should be valued. At the same time, there are some common shortcomings in practice that are often associated with both views.
For those who favor a broad definition of discipleship, it is common (though certainly not universal) that, in practice, discipleship looks like a speaker-to-listener monologue. From Sunday mornings to weekly classes, the primary means of growth is lecture. But while instructing God’s people in the truth of his Word is an essential aspect of discipleship, if we look at Jesus’ ministry, we can see that it is not the whole of discipleship.
For those who lean towards a more specific or precise understanding of discipleship—characterizing it as a unique educational model—there can often be a spoken or unspoken two-tiered classification of believers. In this case, there are the “regular” Christians, and there are the “real disciples” who are most committed to the faith. Historically, this perspective has led to discipling movements that can trend in high-pressure, legalistic directions.
It is amazing to think that Jesus, in His earthly ministry, would spend more time with twelve men than with the rest of the world combined.
This paradigm is completely contradictory to the New Testament model. The word Christian is only used three times in the New Testament. The word disciple is used far more often to refer to followers of Jesus. All of his followers are disciples. God’s forgiveness in Christ is complete and full of grace. Growth in grace is also just that: gracious. Our Father doesn’t look at his people in two categories: Christian and super-Christian. He looks at his people and sees beloved children.
So then, how do we define discipleship? Is it everything the church does that helps people grow more and more like Christ? Yes! But if we look at the ministry of Jesus, we can flesh that out a bit more. Should Jesus’ model and methods of ministry inform what we do as His church? I believe it should.
It is amazing to think that Jesus, in His earthly ministry, would spend more time with twelve men than with the rest of the world combined. In fact, the closer he got to the cross, the more time he spent with the twelve and the less time he spent with the crowds. If we’re honest, most of us would not consider that to be a top church-growth strategy for today. But this was Jesus’ plan for the world to hear the good news of His life, death, resurrection, ascension, reign, and return: a few ordinary, uneducated men who had been with him. This had been Jesus’ plan from the beginning of his earthly ministry.
“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” is an invitation into relationship and growth with a mission in mind. When Jesus calls the twelve in Mark 3:14, he calls them “so that they might be with him, and he might send them out to preach…” In Jesus’ discipling of the twelve, monologue or sermon-style content transfer was not his only means of transformation. At the heart of His discipleship was this “withness” and mission. We see this in Paul’s ministry as well in his first letter to the Thessalonians: “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (2.8).
There is both content delivery (the gospel) and deep relationship (“withness”) at the heart of this discipleship ministry. However we define discipleship, we cannot leave it devoid of personal relationship.
We believe that discipleship in the context of a group is important because of the need for interdependence within the body of Christ in Christian maturity and because Jesus did his discipling with the Twelve.
I have the privilege of speaking with pastors each year in the US and abroad who believe that their church is doing well, but there is a missing piece that they just can’t put their finger on. They’ve got good preaching, good classes, and a sometimes great, sometimes frustrating small group structure, but they’re not seeing people mature in their faith the way they had hoped. What I’ve found repeatedly as I listen is that they are longing for an intentional approach to help their people become mature and equipped followers of Christ, and they don’t know what that looks like.
We at Life on Life Ministries (a ministry of Perimeter Church) have a working definition for what we call life-on-life missional discipleship: laboring in the lives of a few with the intention of imparting one’s life, the gospel, and God’s Word in such a way as to see them become mature and equipped followers of Christ, committed to doing the same in the lives of others. We believe that discipleship in the context of a group is important because of the need for interdependence within the body of Christ in Christian maturity and because Jesus did his discipling with the Twelve.
Surely, it’s not a perfect definition, but it is a helpful one. As we work to build a discipling movement in our church and equip pastors of other churches to help them do the same, we want to focus primarily on what we see in the ministry of Jesus with his twelve men. Certainly, we are not asking anyone to become an itinerant preacher and recruit twelve people to spend all day together every day, but I do believe there are principles from Jesus’ life and ministry of discipling that we can apply to our context today. And I think the definition of life-on-life missional discipleship captures some of those principles in ways that we can use in the church today.
It could also be helpful to think about life-on-life missional discipleship in terms of what it is not. It is NOT life on curriculum (though a good curriculum is certainly helpful). It is NOT life on knowledge (though understanding God’s Word is essential). It is NOT life on programs. It is NOT an event.
So, what might a healthy discipling culture look like in a church? It’s one that’s rooted from beginning to end in the gospel. The goal of discipleship is not behavior modification; it is to be conformed into the image of Christ. That happens as we engage with Christ in the gospel day after day (see 2 Corinthians 3:18). As this kind of transformation happens, behaviors do change because the heart is changed. A healthy discipling culture is also built on intentional, accountable relationships that are mutually committed to growth. It also must be built with the mission of the church in mind: to seek and save the lost and to help others grow into Christ-likeness. A healthy movement should be holistic. Any sphere of life is on the table for growth: work, family, sexual struggles, joys, etc. Within relationships that reflect the heart of 1 Thessalonians 2:8, study of the Scriptures, equipping, accountability, prayer, and missional living bear fruit in lives, families, communities, and workplaces.
What do you specifically do when someone brings up a sexual sin struggle?
Your reaction will speak volumes to someone who has just opened up about a struggle—maybe for the first time.
It starts by investing in just a few people, helping them move towards maturity in all areas of life. This kind of discipling relationship is not a quick fix, it’s messy, and it’s difficult. If you knew me personally, if you knew my heart, you would easily be able to verify that I am no “super-Christian” exception.
What would it look like, then, to disciple people who are just as messy and difficult as we are? What if their messiness and difficulties look very different from our own? The key to developing intentional accountable relationships is a gospel-centered culture. Performance-based cultures promote pretense, not vulnerability. And within that environment, there will be no freedom to reveal, share, and confess our sin. No opportunity to ask for help.
So the first step is to create a safe space for people to be transparent in their need both for Jesus and for the support and encouragement of his body. Setting the expectations for the group before it begins meeting is vitally important. Before I invite someone to join my group, I tell them that I believe honesty and vulnerability are incredibly important for our group. We are not doing this because we’ve got it all together, we are doing this because we are desperately in need of Jesus and each other to grow more towards maturity. That may be intimidating to hear, which is why I also emphasize that I don’t expect this will happen in the first week or month because it takes time to build trust, and trust will be the foundation of healthy accountability. This is one of the reasons that we have a discipleship covenant that members are asked to pray through and sign before joining the group. The second critical step, in my opinion, is that the leader of the group lead with vulnerability, modeling repentance, and asking for accountability.
With that established, I can circle back to how to help a sexual struggler. What do you specifically do when someone brings up a sexual sin struggle? You listen. Your reaction will speak volumes to someone who has just opened up about a struggle—maybe for the first time. Francis Schaeffer once said in his sermon, The Weakness of God’s Servants, “A Bible-believing Christian should have the experience of never being shocked; if we read our Bibles, we should never be shocked.” I love that.
From the beginning, this discipleship group has been a place for sinners in need of God’s grace for our growth, so when we confess our sins to one another and ask for help, this should be no surprise. I want this person to know two very important things: that no struggle with sin is beyond the reach of the gospel and we are not going to run away from you because of what you’ve just shared. You do not have to be a licensed counselor to listen and support someone. Where you go from here varies from situation to situation. You will learn as you go. As a discipleship leader, you are not in a vacuum. Discipleship happens in the context of community. You are a part of a local and global church that displays a variety of gifts for the building up of one another. Other godly men and women can come alongside that person and equip you as a leader along the way.
All of this will take time, and more importantly, it will take dependence on God to be the one who ultimately does the work of transformation. If you’ve never had someone invest in you in this way, that’s OK. Look at Jesus. Look at how he invested in those twelve men. See his relationships with them, his compassion and patience, how he challenged their wrong beliefs, how he equipped them, how he sent them out.
How do you start a discipling movement in your church? We have a simple motto that guides all of our training: Think Big, Start Small, Go Deep. We long to see the world transformed by people encountering the living God. We want to pray and plan and work hard for the gospel to go to places where it has not yet taken root. Discipleship is about following Jesus and pointing people to Jesus: let’s let him be our primary model.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of harvestusa magazine. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.
25 Jul 2019
In March of 2012, my wife and I, along with a group of dear friends, planted Citylight Church in Philadelphia. I was 26 years old and well over the average age among the early members of the church. By God’s grace, Citylight and I have aged, but we are still very young. As a result, the elders of Citylight Church have had the privilege and challenge of reaching, and then shepherding, a flock full of millennials and iGens toward sexual fidelity when that demographic increasingly embraces unbiblical positions on sex, sexuality, marriage, pornography, and gender. Throughout the journey, one passage of Scripture that has been particularly formative for us is Colossians 1:28-29 (ESV): “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”
In this rich passage, we have found three guiding principles for making disciples among generations steeped in sexual confusion and brokenness. Proclaim. Warn and Teach. Remember Your Goal and Your Energy.
The very best way to help young people honor Jesus with their sexuality is by proclaiming to them all that Jesus is and all that Jesus does. We’ve watched something stunning happen over the years at Citylight as we tirelessly proclaim Jesus Christ as the eternal Son who was with the Father in the beginning, as the One through whom and for whom everything was made, as the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, as the perfect high priest who has brought us to God through his shed blood, as the resurrected Lord who secures our new birth, as the One who is with us always by the indwelling Holy Spirit, as the King who invites us into a kingdom larger than our own, and as the Savior who will return to deliver us from the wrath to come.
We’ve seen people become increasingly captivated by Jesus and decreasingly captivated by unbiblical sexual beliefs and practices. Many of the millennials I know (myself included) are worn out by their own narcissism. We are hungry for a King whose Kingdom isn’t a celebration of us. As we proclaim the wonder of Jesus’ person and work, over time, we’ve seen countless young people turn from the idol of sex to serve the “living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9).
Never stop proclaiming Jesus.
Warn and Teach
Teaching is the orderly presentation of Christian truth for converts so that they may know how to grow.1 Since we want to present everyone in Citylight Church mature in Christ, we have to explicitly connect the proclamation of Jesus to the details of people’s lives, and that happens through warning and teaching. Gone are the days when people naturally connect the message of the gospel to its implications for sexuality. We have to warn and teach so that gospel proclamation leads to specific gospel application.
Many of the millennials I know (myself included) are worn out by their own narcissism. We are hungry for a King whose Kingdom isn’t a celebration of us.
When it comes to teaching, one of the very best ways to connect the gospel to issues of sexuality is to preach through books of the Bible when the church gathers. This practice ensures that we will talk a lot about sexual issues because the Bible talks a lot about sexual issues.
Other ways that we teach our church to connect the gospel to its sexual implications are through membership classes, our member covenant, through our small group leader trainings, through our weekly small groups that discuss the book of the Bible we are learning from on Sundays, and by encouraging and resourcing a culture of one-to-one discipleship where we help apply the gospel to the details of one another’s lives.
Warning in Scripture refers to confronting with the intent of changing one’s attitudes and actions. Warning is critical for maturity. In Proverbs, Solomon warns his maturing son that though sexual sin looks fabulous, he needs to know that “the dead are there” (Proverbs 9:18). Solomon warns his son by helping him consider where sexual sin will lead. At Citylight, we try to encourage a culture of love and courage that makes warning possible. Love desires the best for the other, and courage is willing to get in the way of someone walking toward destruction.
Most millennials have been discipled by the culture into a “live and let live” mindset when it comes to sexual expression. The result is that warning often feels like hate, rather than love. However, we have to keep Jesus’ interaction with the rich young man in mind (Mark 10:17-22). Verse 21 says that Jesus looked at the rich young man and loved him. Jesus then proceeded to tell the young man something he would have hated to hear: sell all that you have. Jesus, love incarnate, teaches us that love sometimes warns and says things that the beloved might hate to hear for the sake of their good (see also Acts 20:20).
I have one very practical encouragement to pastors and leaders when it comes to teaching and warning others: equip the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:12). Teaching and warning one another to apply the gospel to issues of sexuality requires a level of closeness that a leader can only have with so many people. Therefore, the Christian leader should make it their goal to equip the saints to teach and warn one another (Romans 15:14). There is no perfect structure for equipping the saints to teach and warn one another (classes, training, leader development, online courses, etc.). Simply pick one, start equipping your people, and adjust the structure as needed.
I am overjoyed to tell you that God is powerfully at work in churches throughout our region who are reaching scores of young people and maintaining biblical fidelity in the area of gender and sexuality.
Equipping the saints to minister to one another’s sexual struggles is aided significantly by a culture of family in the church. The two best ways I know to create a culture of family in the church are to talk about the church as a family constantly and have the leaders go first in modeling transparency about their sexual struggles with a few trusted church members who can, in turn, do the same with other church members.
Remember Your Goal and Your Energy
Finally, keep your goal in mind as you minister to this confused generation. On this side of eternity, the results of proclaiming, warning, and teaching will always be a mixed bag. As a result, discouragement will always be nipping at your heels as you seek to lead people (young or old) toward sexual fidelity. As someone who is easily prone toward discouragement, I have to press into the goal of and energy behind my shepherding. My goal is to present everyone mature in Christ. My ministry isn’t about me; it’s about Christ. Why should I be discouraged?
My energy is the powerful working of God. Prayer kills discouragement and leads us into dependence on God who is powerful. I am overjoyed to tell you that God is powerfully at work in churches throughout our region who are reaching scores of young people and maintaining biblical fidelity in the area of gender and sexuality. Rest assured, you do not need to compromise Scripture’s clear teaching on human sexuality to reach people or build the church. Jesus will build his church. That’s his promise. Our privilege is to toil and struggle for our people with all his energy that he powerfully works within us!
This article was first published in the Spring 2019 issue of harvestusa magazine. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.
1 The New American Commentary, Philippians, Colossians, & Philemon by Richard Melick Jr.
A heartbreaking twenty-year regret. I saw something and hesitated. A summer’s day walk through a park led me by a parked car. A glance gave me a brief view inside the car to notice a man and what looked like a young child. Something felt off; when the man looked over, and we locked eyes, I froze internally but kept walking. I hadn’t seen any obvious wrongdoing, but his face and a subtle alarm going off in my heart rattled me. Scared and confused, I rushed to the neighborhood police station and reported what I’d seen and was told a car would be sent out.
A twenty-year regret that I did not approach that car leads me to pray occasionally for the now-adult-child, just in case a vulnerable child was hurt that day.
A disturbing fact that should motivate Christians toward vigilant, courageous action is that sexual misconduct and abuse of power happens even among us. To us. By us. It’s not only those “out there,” like the child in the car, who need protection, but all those who are vulnerable within the church.
Four Steps Churches Must Take
This is a deeply troubling, potentially overwhelming topic, so consider the following four steps as your church’s starting point for being a sexually faithful church. At the end of this article, there are a few resources to further guide your church.
Acknowledge that the horror of sexual abuse has happened to many people in your congregation, and they come into the Body of Christ with deep scars and wounds. See them; they are there. Your ministry needs to take their stories into account as you pastor because trauma does not disappear into the past. Those with abuse histories are especially vulnerable to being abused again.
Acknowledge, also, that abuse can happen in your church, particularly by those in leadership. It’s terrible, but true, that sexual predators target faith communities. Why? Christians are often naive, quick to trust, ignorant of this problem, and churches generally offer easy access to children.1 Abusers find the church to be a refuge for their evil deeds.
The abuse scandals that have rocked churches share a common thread: the abused were not listened to. Disbelief and cover-up became the way many churches dealt with the allegations. Rather than pursue truth and protect and care for the wounded, leaders covered for their friends, colleagues, for the reputation of their ministry and church.
The result: Broken and bruised children and teens (adults, too) weren’t believed. Lives were further traumatized; the faith of many failed.
Humanity is so utterly devastated by appalling sin that we need radical intervention through Christ. On behalf of the vulnerable, it is God himself who calls leaders to see the broken and respond to them.
Refusing to acknowledge and deal with these kinds of sins is to commit a graver one: turning away from Christ himself who identifies with the oppressed and weak.
“Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me’” (Matthew 25:44-45).
Refusing to acknowledge and deal with these kinds of sins is to commit a graver one: turning away from Christ himself who identifies with the oppressed and weak.
Learn what you need to do to protect your flock. This task may seem overwhelming, but thankfully there are a growing number of trustworthy resources like Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) which provide education and training on subjects like:
- How to develop a comprehensive plan for your church regarding the vetting of anyone who has a role of responsibility for the vulnerable.
- How to recognize the signs of child sexual abuse.
- How to recognize the typical profiles of pedophiles. Most pedophiles know their victims and are winsome, skilled deceivers who can present in church settings as charming, dedicated Christians.
- How to conduct an effective investigation of accusations of abuse, particularly if the accused is a pastor, staff member, or lay leader.
- How to develop policies, communicated and agreed upon by all leaders and staff, to refuse to hide or cover-up any allegations, and hold one another accountable to follow through.
But do more than study policies and procedures. Read stories from those who are survivors of sexual abuse. Talk with those who are willing to share their stories. These first-hand stories flesh out in powerful ways how abuse can happen, what its devastating impact is, and how the church can effectively protect and respond.
PROVIDE COMPASSIONATE CARE
It goes without saying that this is vital for those who have been abused. So gather resources that provide a list of experienced and spiritually mature people, men and women in your congregation that can come alongside those who have been hurt, and professional counselors who are experienced in counseling trauma and abuse victims and for their families who are also profoundly impacted.
Care is needed for the abusers, also. God’s grace goes the full distance to forgive all sin, and to provide healing through his Spirit, including the hearts of abusers. But offenders also need protection from themselves. A compassionate approach to abuse means that the abuser must submit to boundaries, guidelines, and oversight, and any refusal to do so will mean discipline and even expulsion from the church.
LEAN ON JESUS
Finally, to protect the vulnerable, sexually faithful churches need to depend on Jesus to do this. I close with this because, after considering the first three steps, no one can doubt that this kind of ministry is beyond anyone’s ability. We cannot lament what is horrific, confront sins such as deceit, malice, abuse, betrayal, and pride, care for children and adults who have been devastated by the selfishness of others, and deal with abusers from our personal and feeble reserves of wisdom and love. We need radical wisdom and strength from outside of ourselves; we need a Savior and Redeemer, and we have one in Jesus.
“The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” (Psalm 9:9). We cannot be satisfied with saying these words; we must live them out as ones who are called to reflect him.
This article first appeared in the harvestusa magazine Spring 2019 issue. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.
“Recommendations for Churches Dealing With Abuse” by Diane Langberg
Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment (GRACE) is an excellent resource for churches
Onguard: Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse at Church by Deepak Reju
1GRACE, “Five Characteristics of Child Sexual Offenders in Faith Communities,” (accessed 10 May 2019).
Ellen shares additional insight in the accompanying video: How Can Your Church Protect the Vulnerable in Your Midst? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
Probably the most significant issue the Church must address is protecting church members from being abused by those in leadership. Story after story after story over the past several decades has shown how women, children, and even men, have been sexually abused by pastors, priests, and other leaders. But it gets worse. When the abuse is exposed, the Church has protected the abusers instead of protecting the abused and making things right. This unspeakable tragedy is what has contributed to increasingly falling church attendance rates.
The Church needs to acknowledge that all Christians struggle sexually in some way. But it must also recognize, and attend to, those in its midst who struggle with same-sex attraction. While the biblical worldview of sex and sexuality does not embrace gay relationships, that does not mean the Church ignores or mistreats those who try to live faithful lives with a struggle they did not choose.
Tim Geiger gives five ways you can walk alongside someone who struggles with same-sex attraction, communicating along the way that he or she is a fellow believer who is loved and valued—by God and by you! You can learn more by reading Tim’s blog, “Loving Our LGBTQ+ Struggling Brothers and Sisters,” and our recent harvestusa magazine where this article first appeared.
03 Jul 2019
We define a sexually faithful church this way: A church that disciples its members in a gospel worldview of sexuality through education and redemptive ministry. The major point in this simple but far-reaching statement is this: For a church to teach, lead, model, and assist its people to live faithful lives within God’s design for sex, sexuality, and gender, discipleship is the key. Discipleship is a subset of the Great Commission, “making disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded.”
This is the mission of the church. Placing sexuality within the context of this mission gives focus and direction to how we address it.
There is another passage that has long been recognized as paradigmatic for the ministry of the church.
“And he gave. . . shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. . . so that we may no longer be. . . tossed to and fro. . . by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning. . . Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up. . . into Christ, from whom the whole body. . . when each part is working properly. . . builds itself up in love.” Ephesians 4:11-16 (ESV)
We see in this description of what faithful ministry looks like a guide, also, to sexually faithful ministry. We can identify in these verses four characteristics of a church that is faithfully discipling its members in a gospel worldview of sexuality. Such a church will be biblically grounded, mercifully honest, humbly led, and ministry minded. Let me briefly describe what we mean by each one.
“. . . no longer. . . tossed to and fro. . . by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning. . . ”
A mom and dad sit in my office, tearfully recounting to me the conversation with their son about his coming out as gay: “Mom, don’t you know, Jesus never talked about homosexuality. Besides, the few parts of the Bible that do talk about it are not addressing someone like me, who was born this way.” They are confused. They sense that what he is saying is wrong, but don’t know what to say or think.
A group of young girls run by me in church. They are singing a song from the latest Disney movie. The chorus urges them to look inside, follow their heart, and believe in themselves.
What do these scenarios have in common? They illustrate that the world around us is discipling us—especially our kids—all the time. It should not be surprising that we are being “tossed to and fro.”
Being biblically grounded means more than settling on the right doctrinal positions. It means giving people the kind of deep and regular teaching that effectively counters the constant barrage of messages they hear in this world. It means biblical teaching on sexuality and gender that does not only focus on “the bad.” It means winsomely communicating the Bible’s message of the beauty and goodness of sex. It means explaining how God’s good design for sex and gender helps us understand him and the gospel.
A church can give all the right answers from the Bible, and yet have no connection to those in their midst who languish in isolation, paralyzed by fear and shame.
But also, it involves teaching about sexuality and gender in the context of an entire worldview. It means identifying the misunderstandings, distortions, and even lies being spread in our culture about what the Bible does or doesn’t say. The “winds of doctrine” that are tossing our churches blow from a rival world. We need to learn to recognize the worldview foundations of our culture’s messages. We need to counter them with the biblical understanding of God, of the nature of reality, of what it means to be human, of what hope we cling to, of what redemption looks like.
“. . . speaking the truth in love. . . it builds itself up. . . ”
He was in his early seventies and had come for help in his fight against pornography. Early in our discussions, two things stood out. He had been struggling with this sin for over half a century, and I was the first person he had ever talked to about it. This, even though he had been in the church his whole life, even an officer at times. These kinds of details are significant. We have found stories like his to be very common. The amount of time varies, but the prolonged period of struggle in isolation is typical. A church can give all the right answers from the Bible, and yet have no connection to those in their midst who languish in isolation, paralyzed by fear and shame.
Talking about sex is scary enough—for people and churches. It is scary because it is so personal. Even exploration of the theological meaning of sex makes us uneasy because objective theological talk always hovers at the borders of our subjective, personal story. People’s stories are filled with failure, pain, brokenness, and powerful shame.
However, keeping our personal stories hidden in isolation and darkness is the problem that hinders us from grasping the gospel that radically changes our lives. Hiding keeps people struggling with these issues from all the help, encouragement, comfort, and life that is offered by Christ through the means of the fellowship of the saints. That fellowship requires openness and honesty. As John writes, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another” (1 John 1:7).
But to “walk in the light,” we all need an environment that is invitingly merciful. People need to know that there is much more to be gained by coming out of isolation than to be feared. Because of the gospel, there is grace, patience, hope, encouragement, love, strength—all the blessings of union with Christ and communion with his Body, the church, are offered to the ones who step into the light through faith. But our nature is averse to faith; we are hesitant to trust the mercy offered to us. So the proclamation of this mercy cannot be lackluster. The mercy of the gospel merits special emphasis because, as fearful sinners, we need assurance that the Savior is for us.
Unfortunately, it is not just our natural fear of exposure that is a challenge here. Some have had experiences in church, or have heard of others’ experiences, which confirm their fears—people shunned, shamed, or clumsily disciplined. But often it is not particular incidents that create a church culture of hiding. It is the unintentional signals that surround every public and private interaction, the social pressure to look good, the emphasis on the external beauty of the public worship, the insistence on the correct doctrine (a good thing, but not the thing), the lack of any visible models of humble confession graciously received, the way “sin” and “sinners” are talked or joked about, the way every discussion or teaching on sex or gender tends toward culture war rather than gospel hope.
A sexually faithful church works to build a culture that is as merciful as Jesus himself. It is his mercy that calls us out of darkness and into the light of the gospel.
“He gave. . . shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints. . . ”
I’ve been in many small group studies, Sunday school classes, and other church teaching events. But one stands out to me from all the rest. It was a Sunday school class for men, hitting many of the typical topics you would expect. One thing made this class different. The elders who led it made a clear commitment to lead in humility. None of us saw them make that commitment, but we saw the results.
So the proclamation of this mercy cannot be lackluster. The mercy of the gospel merits special emphasis because, as fearful sinners, we need assurance that the Savior is for us.
When it was time to discuss any topic, they took the lead in speaking honestly from the heart, freely admitting personal struggles and failures, acknowledging ongoing battles with sin and temptation, and pointing out areas where they still needed to grow in living out the truths of the gospel. It was clear from the start they were not interested in a race to the right answer. The way they modeled humility transformed that class into a place where men were encouraged to make the gospel real at the front lines of their struggles in daily life.
How these leaders lived was as important as what they taught. Leaders need the gospel like everybody else. Those who preach the gospel must also model gospel repentance and faith in their own lives. This means they don’t give the impression that they alone do not need gospel growth when it comes to sexuality. They also need to be honest about the presence of sin in their life, and of their daily reliance on Christ, seeking the power of his resurrection life to put it to death.
For all Christians, this kind of transparency happens in the context of honest and deep friendships of spiritual accountability. But leaders need to seek this kind of fellowship with urgency. The humility this engenders will cause them to deal with sinners (everyone) in their congregation with great gentleness and sympathy. It will move pastors to preach and teach on sexuality not as generals in a culture war but as shepherds mending a ravaged flock.
The Ephesians 4 passage points out that Jesus is the one who gives the church shepherds and teachers. The calling and skills of the leaders are dependent on the gifting of Jesus himself, and that engenders humility. It is a humility that shapes the way shepherds and teachers fulfill their Jesus-given purpose: to equip the saints to fulfill their mission.
“. . . the whole body, joined and held together. . . when each part is working properly. . . builds itself up in love.”
We have a fireplace in our home that we use often, but I am poorly skilled in the art of fire-starting. Almost invariably, my first try to light the fire catches flame quickly and promisingly. I settle back into a comfy chair to enjoy the warmth and ambiance of the blaze. But a few minutes later, the tongues flicker away into smoke, and I’m looking for more used newspaper and a new match.
Ministry, especially in difficult areas such as sexuality, can be like that. At Harvest USA we help local churches design and implement ministry to sexual strugglers. I was recently asked, “When these ministries start up, and then flounder, is there a common reason?” My answer? They flounder because one significant leader either moves away from that church or loses enthusiasm from tiredness or burnout. Lone ranger ministries suffer from instability. The ministry fades like my initial fireplace effort.
Humility. . . will move pastors to preach and teach on sexuality not as generals in a culture war, but as shepherds mending a ravaged flock.
Lone ranger ministry is not the vision God gives us in Ephesians 4. There we see ministry that is broad and deep. The pastors and teachers are not the ones doing the ministry; they are equipping the saints to do it as a “whole body. . . each part working properly.” There is variety in this vision for ministry; not everyone is doing the same thing, but every part is active. And issues of sexuality and gender are essential areas of discipleship for every single person.
A sexually faithful church is discipling its people in all of their varied roles and stations: children, innocent and vulnerable; parents, overwhelmed and fearful; young adults, eager and reckless; singles, restless and anxious; marrieds, disappointed and confused; those dominated by sin, desperate and ashamed; those who think they have no sin, complacent and selfish. To minister to all these types of people, it takes an army of different people, “each part working properly.” It takes leadership that considers the unique needs of every sub-group, equipping the saints to meet these needs. This is especially so in ministry to those who have deep struggles with sexual sin. This kind of ministry needs a team. A church where the work of ministry is spread broadly and deep gains stability and momentum. It “builds itself up.” It becomes a fire that is effective and not easily extinguished.
All these characteristics describe what a sexually faithful church is. Is it possible? Absolutely—it’s God’s design, God’s work, as is written in Ephesians 2:10, “We are God’s workmanship. . . ” We see evidence of God’s working in his church. We see more churches than ever asking for help to teach biblically on sexuality and gender. We see more talking about these issues with grace and honesty. We see pastors humbling themselves, leading in repentance. We are getting requests from churches all over the country to train teams to walk alongside those repenting from and affected by sexual sin. What about your church? Are you eager for Christ to build you up into maturity? Are you willing to be a sexually faithful church?
This article is from the harvestusa magazine Spring 2019 issue. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.