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.
20 Jun 2019
Ed was feeling overwhelmed. The couple that just left his office had been there for marriage counseling. The wife angrily revealed in the session that she discovered her husband had been looking at gay pornography. When she confronted him about it, he confessed that it had been a lifelong struggle. She felt betrayed, hurt, and doubtful that someone like her husband could ever change.
That counseling session came on the heels of last week’s revelation that one of the girls in the senior high youth group had come out as transgender and wanted her peers and youth leaders to call her by a male name. And, there was a church session meeting just days prior, where a major topic of conversation was how to effectively discipline a church member who was in an adulterous affair.
As Ed sat in his office, looking out the window, he found himself asking the question: Lord! What do I do?
Ed’s experience illustrates a growing problem many pastors, elders, and other church leaders face: how to respond to sexual and gender-related sin and struggle in the church. How do you minister to the strugglers themselves and help them walk in increasing faith and repentance? How do you comfort and support family members who are directly impacted by their loved ones’ struggle and sin? How do you respond to church members who resist repentance? And, how and when do you engage formal church discipline?
Those actions are all good and necessary. But, they are all reactive. They come into play after the struggle or sin has been exposed and after it has caused so much damage to the lives of God’s saints. And, they constitute only one part of the ministerial responsibility pastors and church leaders face.
The other side of the pastoral care coin (and the more important of the two) is the call for the church to proactively equip its members to walk in accord with God’s timeless, sovereign, holy, and wise design for sex, sexuality, and gender. At a minimum, being proactive helps Christians understand the inherent goodness of God’s created order when the temptation comes to selfishly misuse it. Proactively preparing God’s people for life in the post-Christian, anti-authoritarian, “authentic self” 21st Century goes a long way toward heading off life-dominating struggle and sin in the first place.
Proactively preparing God’s people could have potentially minimized the impact of the painful challenges now faced by those people in Ed’s church. Could proactive ministry have even prevented some of these issues in the first place? Possibly. As Ed silently pondered his question to the Lord, he asked himself: Is there anything I could have done differently so that these people wouldn’t be struggling in the ways they are now? Is there anything I could have done in advance so I wouldn’t be dealing with these broken lives now?
Proactively preparing God’s people for life in the post-Christian, anti-authoritarian, “authentic self” 21st Century goes a long way toward heading off life-dominating struggle and sin in the first place.
To minister both reactively (to those directly impacted by sexual and gender-related sin and struggle) and proactively (to the entire membership of the visible church), the church itself must be committed to a position of sexual faithfulness. At Harvest USA, we call such churches “sexually faithful churches.”
What is a Sexually Faithful Church?
The term “sexually faithful church” might sound a bit awkward. It certainly is one I never heard until we came up with it at Harvest USA a couple of years ago. This term is one that is meant to be a bit abrasive, as it is intended to call Christians and church leaders to action.
Though the term “sexually faithful church” may be new, it is an ancient, orthodox concept. Here is how we define a sexually faithful church:
A church that disciples its members in a gospel worldview of sexuality through education and redemptive ministry.
What does that definition mean? Let’s briefly explore that definition so you have a better appreciation of where we’re going.
A church that disciples. . . A sexually faithful church is one that intentionally and proactively engages in discipleship. Intentional discipleship is how members grow in the knowledge and fear of the Lord. It is taught and lived out in a way that helps church members apply God’s redemptive grace to their lives. Doing so encourages them to grow in their understanding and appreciation of God’s design for sex, sexuality, and gender, to resist temptation, and to increase their active ministry among the community of their fellow believers. Through peer and mentor discipleship, they discover practical ways to apply that teaching to their particular lives and situations and to live faithfully as God’s covenant people.
. . . its members. . . Members at every age level, from young children to seniors, receive age-appropriate teaching about God’s good and wise design for their bodies and desires. They receive biblical, life-changing teaching about proactive accountability and living transparently and interdependently in the Body of Christ. Proactive accountability is a way for friendships to develop where friends are not afraid of sharing their struggles and are willing to ask hard questions when the need arises. Transparency and honesty is the bedrock of solid, godly relationships.
. . . in a gospel worldview of sexuality. . . We use the word sexuality here as a blanket term to refer to sex, sexuality, and gender. God’s people learn that these attributes of created existence and image bearing are theirs precisely because, through the right exercise and enjoyment of them, we not only honor God, but we reveal his wisdom and glory to each other and the world. In a culture that says we are nothing more than the collection of feelings and desires that drive us, to understand and rest in God’s design for sex, sexuality, and gender bestows an uncommon dignity and glory on men and women as God’s image bearers and his servant-kings over his creation.
But our modern culture tells us that a gospel worldview of sex, sexuality, and gender is not only wrong but that it is also harmful to human flourishing. We’re told that teaching a historic gospel worldview on these issues of human personhood is culturally uninformed, out of touch, insensitive, and unloving. A sexually faithful church educates its members to know how to discern the distortions and falsehoods that increasingly deceive Christians into thinking that to love others means never to challenge their worldviews or their behavior. In other words, the sexually faithful church instructs its members on how to compassionately, patiently, and winsomely speak the truth in love to others.
A Special Call to the Sexually Faithful Church
The call to be proactive in discipling God’s people in biblical sexuality must also deal with an issue the Church has not done well with: sexual abuse and the traumatic repercussions that come with it.
First, the church must acknowledge the hiddenness of this sin and work diligently to care for the victims of sexual abuse, recognizing the devastating impact abuse has on survivors. The church should compassionately help and support survivors to heal and to flourish spiritually, emotionally, and socially.
Second, the church must address the issue of the offenders when the abuse is within the congregation. It must not fail to engage the authorities to see that the laws of the state are upheld, in both investigation and prosecution. And then, it must carefully guard the entire church with policies and procedures that protect against further abuse while helping the offenders to repent and grow. Restrictions on offenders are not punitive; they are restorative for everyone.
Proactive accountability is a way for friendships to develop where friends are not afraid of sharing their struggles and are willing to ask hard questions when the need arises. Transparency and honesty is the bedrock of solid, godly relationships.
And third, a sexually faithful church must never shield its leaders from appropriate investigation when allegations are made against them. Careful investigation by those who are not close to the people involved is what is needed to uncover the facts and seek the truth. That will mean getting outside consultation from professionals and a willingness to listen to them and act on their input. Our people need to see this from us. The world needs to see this from us—because one cover-up scandal after another is steadily turning people away from the institution of the Church. How can we persuade people to follow God in this area of sexuality when we misuse it, and then lie about it?
The History of the Sexually Faithful Church
God commanded his people in the Ten Commandments and elsewhere throughout the Law to be sexually faithful. There are numerous New Testament instructions to be sexually faithful; perhaps the most direct of which is Paul’s admonition to “Flee from sexual immorality” in 1 Corinthians 6:18.
But this imperative is more than a bare command. God’s people are instructed, throughout the length and breadth of Scripture, to both obey the Law and to do so in the context of transparent community.
That instruction goes back to the beginning of Israel as a covenant community. During the period when God established the first community of believers under Moses, he made clear the manner through which God’s people were to be trained in the knowledge and fear of God and equipped to live faithfully. That manner was twofold: teaching, followed by accountability in community. Let’s look at each of them in more detail.
Teaching is commanded to take place in different venues and to different audiences. The Law was to be read publicly to the entire congregation during certain public worship observances (Deuteronomy 31:10-11). Parents were commanded “diligently” to teach the Word of God to their children, in all sorts of settings: “talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:7). Living out the instruction of God’s Word, in the most deliberate manner, was to be a way of life in the home.
While the community was to receive the recitation of the Law in public worship and talk about it with their families, they were also commanded to focus on God’s revelation during their “quiet time.” Psalm 119 was written as a celebration of God’s Law as the perfect pattern for life itself. Readers are exhorted to “do as I do,” with reference to the writer’s words: “I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways” (Psalm 119:15). And, it goes almost without saying, that throughout the Old Testament there are the specific commands forbidding certain sexual behaviors (Leviticus) and the agony God displays in dealing with Israel’s adultery (see the Prophets).
In the New Covenant, Paul tells his hearers in Romans 12:2 that covenant believers will be transformed in all respects as their minds are renewed through interacting with God’s Word. He says to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:15-16 that being intimately acquainted with Scripture makes us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” and that Scripture makes us “complete [and] equipped for every good work.” In a remarkable passage, Paul implores the church at Thessaloniki to intentionally live sexually faithful lives based on the instruction “you received from us (in) how you ought to walk and please God” (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8).
Whether in the context of the covenant community or the family or alone, God’s people are to remember God’s Word on a daily basis. We are meant to live it out and be utterly transformed by it.
A sexually faithful church educates its members to know how to discern the distortions and falsehoods that increasingly deceive Christians into thinking that to love others means never to challenge their worldviews or their behavior.
This transformation is not for us alone, merely for individual personal growth. We are messengers of the gospel, and the way we live—and that specifically includes the way we live in and with these bodies God has given to us—is so that we will “shine like lights” in a broken world (see Philippians 2:15). This is the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 22:18: “and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
To the extent that we, Abraham’s spiritual offspring, obey the fullness of the revelation from that same Teacher, we shall indeed bless those around us in our families, workplaces, schools, and communities.
A Vision for the 21st Century Sexually Faithful Church
To be sure, becoming a sexually faithful church requires a commitment to culture change in our churches. That commitment occurs both at the organizational level (the whole church) and the individual level (the particular believer). It requires a commitment to participate in a lifestyle of discipleship with other believers.
Culture change means teaching God’s people what Scripture really teaches about sex, sexuality, and gender—and that God, as wise and loving Designer of human beings, is the only Authority on how these aspects of personhood should be enjoyed. The sexually faithful church must help its members learn how to discern theological truth from distortion and to know how to engage cultural lies with confidence. Whether it involves compassionate correction or a more robust rebuke, communicating God’s will on these issues must always be the truth, spoken in love.
Harvest USA will launch the Sexually Faithful Church Initiative later in 2019. In the months to come, you’ll see more and more resources produced by Harvest USA to help your church become, increasingly, a sexually faithful church. We realize that educating and equipping the members of your church to become a sexually faithful church is a process. We want to partner with you to help make it a reality—for the glory of God, and a witness to the world.
This article is from the harvestusa magazine Spring 2019 issue. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.
Tim has more thoughts on this topic and shares them in the accompanying video: What Is a Sexually Faithful Church? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc
20 Jun 2019
What if the Church were to increasingly be a place where God’s people were equipped proactively to understand his will and design for sex, sexuality, and gender? Where they were discipled to live in submission to God’s design, because they understand something of God’s wisdom and grace in giving them these good gifts?
That’s what the Sexually Faithful Church Initiative is all about. It’s a movement Harvest USA is starting later this year, because we want the Church to be the place where God’s people not only learn about what behavior God forbids, but where God’s people are discipled and equipped to live faithfully because they understand the character of the Giver and the nature of the Gift. Watch this video from Tim Geiger to learn more. You can also read Tim’s blog “Why a Sexually Faithful Church?” that accompanies this video.
02 Aug 2012
You know, there’s a lot at stake as we live this one, short, earthly life. Speaking at 2012 The Gospel Coalition Women’s conference, John Piper shared thoughts from Isaiah 6. John spoke about the power of gazing upon the Lord, to know our glorious Jesus as the one who is exalted and holy, yet who has come near to us so that we can have a taste of his majesty. Too often, we have a view of God which is way, way too small! To miss him is to spend the fleeting life we have been given on what is fleeting and passing away.
Seventy-five years from now, none of us will regret the decisions we made which flowed from love for Jesus. If we have gotten a taste of the majesty of God, then we will delight to give glory to God in who we are and what we do. We will not regret the ‘inconvenient’ and painful obedience that faith demands; the courageous confrontation and turning away from our favorite idols; the letting go of even good gifts that may not be what God has for us; living in singleness, which leaves a dull and painful ache at times; being faithful to our spouse in a tough marriage; or persevering in love toward wayward and rebellious children.
Many women I’ve gotten the privilege to journey with have become tripped up in their calling to be “glory givers” because their view of God was too small. A small view of God makes other people become big—bigger than they should be in our lives. We become hungry for them, and we feast at the banquet table of emotional cravings. That’s certainly been true in my own life. A growing worship and awe of our Lord Jesus leads me away from people idolatry to truly loving others, rather than using, being controlled by, or obsessing over them.
The Holy One upon the throne, so beautifully described in Isaiah 6, isn’t meant to drive you to a fearful retreat from a Holy God! No, this throne is owned by the Grace Giver, who is glorious and who welcomes needy, robbers of glory like you and me! We come to this throne “receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16, ESV). Read Isaiah 6 in the context of the mercy of Jesus Christ for you, and prayerfully examine your life to see how mercy shapes your life for him.
Romans 12:1-2 says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
How is God calling you to be a living sacrifice for his glory? For his purposes? How is he inviting you to love him by letting go of an unholy relationship that is eclipsing the Lord’s presence in your life? How is he inviting you to fix your gaze on him rather than trying to figure out how obedience will “work” in your favor? How is he calling you to courageously confess to a friend regarding your online addictions?