02 Feb 2017
Affirming Gender is a new blog site that Sam A. Andreades, pastor, author, and speaker, has put together to create an online forum to discuss issues of gender and transgender. Sam is the author of enGendered: God’s Gift of Gender Difference in Relationship, a biblical and engaging study of how God has given humanity the gift of gender, and of the difference that gender makes in relationships and the rest of our lives.
A few months ago, Sam gave us a rich, in-house teaching on gender and transgender issues, and all of us here at HARVEST USA want to commend his ministry in this crucial area. Check out his new website, and start thinking about and exploring gender in ways that are both biblically solid and, perhaps, different than you would think. That this is a discussion on gender we need to have now is an understatement, given that we now read almost daily about gender being immaterial to who we are as persons or changeable according to the opposite gender we would like to be.
Sam is giving us permission to post some of his blogs that we think help our followers to think through these issues in theological and pastoral ways. Get to know Sam…he’s well worth your time online.
Here’s Sam’s post on affirminggender.com, dated December 31, 2016:
It was in the campus air. Women’s Studies had begun as a field, laying a groundwork for Queer Theory in the 1990s. The people in the know would introduce it slowly, of course, to make sure it wasn’t completely abhorrent. It was the program to tear down the gender binary.
I noticed it in the women’s styles. Long hair was out. Wearing short hair as a girl was a statement. The style was not just easier to brush, but an attempt to cut off any sign that women differed from men.
There are several reasons for the destruction of gender, but this was one. The two camps of academic second-wave feminism (1970s–1980s) were battling about whether to empower women by showing them to be capable of supposed masculine traits or to seek equality by valuing femininity and what women do, working to reconstruct society’s values to value what women are. Neither side won exactly, but the resulting synthesis was a program to obliterate any sense of difference between the genders.
Some women resisted the program. Feminist author-to-be Naomi Wolfe was different, of course. Her incipient tendency to be a gadfly was evident even then in her long, full, flowing, brunette mane, which she refused to cut. She was annoying people even then.
Later-to-be Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, had just left the law school seven years before, with her hair intact. But she learned there, as we were all learning, that baking cookies was sub-par—if you are a woman, that is. That a calling of making a home for a family was for losers. In the process, we were being taught to disdain our mothers for the stability they made in their homes for us, the stability from which we went on to our great achievements.
They were right about there not being a difference in scalp hair. Men and women’s hair both grow long unless it is cut. As the apostle Paul recognized so long ago (1Co 11:14-15), “the nature of things” in Roman culture gave women of that time glory in their hair, as in American culture of the previous decades. So whose hair is long or short is not a matter of gender.
And yet it was.
Because gender is about relationship, ultimately with the other gender. Shearing that cultural artifact was about defying a practice that expressed a complement to men. It didn’t matter whose hair was short, but it did matter that there was some cultural way of expressing difference. And that was the point. Difference was to be erased.
But gender is all about making a difference. That is why Paul instructs the Corinthians to use the cultural practice to express truth about gender in marriage (v. 16). Erasing all distinction between women and men distances them from one another. And then follows the big mistake of believing that women’s problems can be solved without men, without reference to men, in spite of men.
But that will never happen. And that is why this blog exists. To call us in a better direction. For when you lose gender in relationship, you lose gender.
Welcome to the Affirming Gender blog, Post #1!
30 Jan 2017
Identity. What makes it up? It is no easy thing to decide, and we need help. I am writing this article having just learned today that a young man close to our family has decided that he is really a woman. He is taking a new name to assume what he thinks is his true identity.
People today have done a great switcheroo on the matter. Nowadays, a man’s desires are considered a deep part of who he is, at the core of his being. But his body is simply happenstance, a house of the soul that may be changed, or exchanged, without damage to his identity. We must grieve this change in the culture because it is exactly opposite of what the Bible says about us.
According to the Book, we are chock full of desires, some lofty, some destructive, many mostly contradictory. While some tell us about ourselves, others lie to us about who we are. To root our identity in a particular one is superficial and likely to mislead us. For a person to identify herself by the direction of her sexual desires (as in, “I am a lesbian”) is incredibly dehumanizing and limiting to the psyche. To demand, as our society now does, that people who experience same-sex attraction must identify with those desires, must consider them an inalienable and unchangeable part of who they are, must, in other words, call themselves “gay,” is one of the great harms of our day. It means that many who would like to determine themselves differently cannot get help with unwanted same-sex attractions. Even if they are aware that help exists, they will be persuaded against seeking it out.
At the same time, under the influence of Plato, Gnosticism, and, more recently Rene Descartes, our culture has decided that our bodies are not an important component of our identities. The body is considered a cage of our real selves, and sometimes a hindrance to our spirituality. But, in the beginning, God declares that He gives us bodies to reflect His image. In the first chapter of Genesis, He makes us masculine and feminine, giving us physical characteristics to guide us into our identities. That integration is maintained throughout the Biblical witness (spend some time, for example, meditating on James 2:26). Our bodies teach us how to be in relationship, and being in relationship is deeply who we are.
Transgenderism is a predictable result of rejecting the Bible’s counsel. We all commonly dislike parts of ourselves. If we switch what does not really compose our identities (our sometimes wrongful sexual desire) for what should compose our identities (our body), then when we experience severe distress with who we are, it makes sad sense to try changing our bodies. But, as the suicide statistics of those who transition show, that modification is not the answer. We are wrecking part of our true identities.
Our gender is a great gift from God, an immense privilege in reflecting His image, and, as expressed through our bodies, an indispensable key to understanding our inner selves. As I’ve said, it is no easy thing to understand our identities and our bodies are given to guide us in that understanding, to help us know how we should love. Why would people reject this great gift?
There are many reasons we could give, but two very important ones stand out. The reasons are false ideas that deceive many people today.
A first reason for believing that one is trapped in the wrong body is misunderstanding what gender is. According to the Bible, gender matters in relationship, and this part of who we are comes out in how we love one another (1 Corinthians 11:11). Again, rejecting this counsel, people come to think of their gender in isolation and rely on societal norms to define manhood and womanliness. They think that being a real man means using power tools, or being a real woman means wearing perfume. If you are a man who does not fit in with the norms around you, or who identifies more with the opposite norms, then—of course, that’s it!—you must really be a woman.
But your gender was never meant to be understood that way. Young people today need more than ever to see the Bible’s beautiful vision of manhood and womanliness so that they can be encouraged that they can do it as they grow. Yes, if I am a girl, I can be a woman in the Lord’s eyes. Yes, if I am a boy, I really can do the things that God calls men to do, I really can reach manhood. Maybe I cannot achieve the culture’s definition, but I can answer God’s call.
Our gender is a great gift from God, an immense privilege in reflecting His image, and, as expressed through our bodies, an indispensable key to understanding our inner selves.
A second reason people are apt to opt for transitioning is mistaking capacity for sympathy for identity. Our secondary sexual traits often overlap. Boys are usually better at math but not always. Girls often do better at languages but not every time. Many more men sleepwalk than women, but that doesn’t mean that no woman ever sleepwalks. God makes this overlap on purpose so that we can relate to one another. Men and women need points of connection. So if a guy feels certain affinities with women, he should understand that he is God’s gift to the church to help the men around him relate to the mysterious others in their midst. Pastorally, we can help this man by helping him to understand how he is uniquely created and how God loves many of these things about him, even things that he himself may hate. This man is given to us to understand women better, but he is not a woman.
These are two of the gross misconceptions, really deceptions, that cloud judgment and pave the road to the adoption of the opposite gender and alteration of the body. They block off finding one’s true identity in Christ.
We can expect the transgender phenomena to increase because when you lose gender in relationship, you lose gender. Our society has, and will. If you do not already, you will soon know someone like our family friend, who is taking a new name as a woman. His parents have written me, in a letter I just opened, urging me to support this decision. While I want relationship with this friend to continue in my life, I do so with great sadness for him. I must grieve at what is, to me, a great case of mistaken identity.
19 Dec 2016
A pastor calls, wondering what he should do. A married woman in his church is beginning to look like a man. Over several months her changed appearance has made it increasingly clear that a slow but significant transformation is happening. But neither the woman nor her husband has asked for help. No one in the congregation has said anything publicly, though people are beginning to take notice. Hence his confusion. What should this pastor do?
For a church to help someone with gender confusion, they must first see a real person in distress. When we get down to the level of the individual, this becomes not a cultural battleground but a person who is struggling. Yes, our culture has made transgenderism the issue du jour, but the person in front of you is like a lamb without a shepherd. In everything you do, help her come to the true Shepherd who will gently guide her.
So, if someone in your church is struggling with gender confusion, we need to do more than proclaim adherence to Genesis 1 and 2 to resolve his or her dilemma. Yes, good biblical teaching on sexuality is necessary. We must not abandon the anchor position that Scripture gives us: God created humanity as male and female, and those two genders are who we are as unique, individual persons. Living out our given maleness and femaleness is an essential part of what it means to be human.
But we also live in a Genesis 3 world. Ours is a world that is broken, resembling God’s original design but increasingly showing deep cracks in how God’s image bearers reflect his image. Men and women have struggled with sexuality and gender for countless ages, so this isn’t anything new.
What is different now, however, is how the culture has turned reality upside-down, insisting that the individual decides what is real and true, rather than the individual conforming to reality. But those who wrestle with their gender identity don’t think they are trying to be rebellious. Rather, they are confused, desperate, and fearful, trying to make sense of their pain. The distress they feel is real. The world’s solution seems more hopeful, a better “fit” to their struggle, so they embrace the post-Christian script that gender is essentially pliable.
What is our advice on what this pastor could say to this woman? How might he speak a message that could give her hope—maybe enough hope to grasp why God has called her to live as a woman; maybe enough hope that she can begin to see herself living congruently with her femaleness; and maybe enough hope for a future that would help her choose to slow down and reverse the transition process she seems to be pursuing?
What do we say? Here are five broad principles this pastor and a church can pursue:
Affirm and recognize how hard this is
Affirm the likelihood that this struggle has been going on for some time. Recognize that this is not a superficial battle and that she and others are trying to make sense of what they experience. Ask good questions so that you can begin to grasp what her life is like and why she feels so strongly that she needs to transition to the opposite gender. When did you start feeling this way? When do you feel it most strongly? What makes you feel most desperate? Get to know her; listen to her stories that are shaping her. Listen carefully.
Understanding biblical truth, and then applying it to our hearts, is a journey, so expect this to take time.
Carefully teach and seek mutual involvement
Communicate to her that deep, persistent struggles grow stronger when we contend with them in isolation. As someone who attends your church, ask if she would allow you to keep speaking into her life about this. You want to hear her thoughts but you also want her to listen as you share a biblical perspective on gender and sexuality. Keep in mind that she has come to hate parts of herself, so communicate in a way that helps her question what she believes about gender rather than trying to convince her with an argument. Questions like, If God has designed every detail of your life from the beginning (Psalm 139), how do you view God if you insist on transitioning? What makes you hate parts of your body when God loves the very body he gave you? What would need to change if you began to accept the body you were born with? Do you know what Scripture says about what it means to be a man or a woman? How is that different from what you believe?
Understanding biblical truth, and then applying it to our hearts, is a journey, so expect this to take time.
Good teaching is rarely, if ever, the sole factor that encourages someone to move in the right direction. Our words, combined with our loving presence, are what people in pain need. Being involved also means connecting her to the body of Christ. You could assist her with Christian counseling, help her find an older and wiser woman as a mentor, involve her in appropriate ministry, pray with her, etc. It is in the body of Christ where we grow. Here, among those who will encourage her, she will learn to accept and grow into the gendered body God gave her. Walk with her for as long as it takes, through all the successes and failures that will be a part of her journey.
Help her to grasp that our life, which includes our body, first belongs to God
Patiently teach that believers in Christ have a deeper foundation for their identity than those in the world. We do not have the right to be autonomous, self-determined individuals, creating identities and lives that fit our felt needs. We are unique individuals, but we first belong to the One who gave us life and redemption. Being made in the image of God includes our gendered body; who we are and how we relate to God and others flows through and is shaped by the body we are given at birth. The body is not like a piece of clothing we can change; we are “ensouled bodies,” bodies into which God breathes life. The body he has given us is essential to our identity.
An identity grounded in Christ seeks his purposes above all else. Orienting ourselves around Christ allows us to reflect on the secure identity that he offers, rather than frantically trying to discover or fashion an identity for ourselves. Grounding who we are in Christ gives us the means to fight and grow increasingly free of internal desires that first confuse and then enslave us.
Teach a biblical view of perseverance in the midst of suffering
Acknowledge that some life-situations are chronic, persistent, and will not be completely resolved in this life, like many chronic disability circumstances. We are called to persevere faithfully in certain situations, to discover in and through the struggle that God’s grace gives all of it meaning, purpose, and daily strength to live, grow, and even to prosper (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).
Call her to bring God into the heart of the situation
Bringing God into the heart of the situation is absolutely necessary because this is a spiritual issue too. Her gender distress has another element of struggle, beyond what she or others think about this issue. And it is this: To go against God’s design and purpose (and reality itself) brings about increasing confusion and pain. Searching for healing is not necessarily wrong, but pursuing solutions that violate God’s intentional design and purpose is rebellion against him. Bringing God into the center is to move toward obeying him, even when it is difficult.
Obedience involves repentance, a daily practice that slowly brings about change and joy. This is accomplished not by focusing on behavior, but by helping her see her heart, the place where she still seeks to find her own solutions. Help her see that obedience is not just keeping a set of rules, but rather the means to experience following Christ as a life-affirming direction. But be careful about what obedience looks like. We are not calling her to live out gender stereotypes, but for her to embrace being a woman who lives that out in ways that honor God, which can look uniquely different than our preconceptions.
We could say a lot more here. But speaking into these broad categories might open doors to effectively help someone wrestling with gender confusion to seek God’s help to be who God has called him or her be.
14 Jul 2016
As the church steps into the trenches of the sexual struggles with which her people are wrestling, it is encountering a new reality and new challenges in how to do faithful ministry. As the culture continues to push into the church, the following “givens” impact how Christians are thinking about sexuality:
- Increasing cultural acceptance of homosexuality, especially among millennials
- Growing acceptance of a genderfluid and genderless society
- An awareness of Christians who experience same-sex attraction (SSA) but confusion about how to help them
- Legalization of gay marriage
- The encroachment of pro-gay theology and its inroads into the evangelical church
- The trend toward casual sexual relationships and co-habitation
- The ubiquity of pornography and the steady erosion of biblical sexual ethics
All of the above signals the need for churches to think strategically about how to “do ministry” as the culture continues to push into the church. John Freeman has spoken to church leaders and presbyteries, helping to bring awareness of the pressing issues that need attention. John highlights four things churches must address.
1. Leadership—insuring everyone is on the same page
While leadership certainly means your key leaders—pastors, elders, deacons, etc.—it also includes your leadership volunteers like women’s leaders, youth leaders, Sunday school and adult teachers, small group leaders, and so on. The importance of all leaders being on the same page, theologically and pastorally, has never been more critical. Asking the following questions will (hopefully) result in dialogue and clarification.
Do you know your current leaders’ views on sex and sexuality? Considering the “givens” listed above, how do you approach your leadership in determining what they believe and where they might be feeling pressure to change? We used to take it for granted that leaders would adhere to biblical sexual ethics, but some are changing their views and remaining silent about it. How do you get everyone on the same page?
Do you know if your leaders are struggling here? As important as what they believe, do you know if some of your leaders are struggling here? People, and especially leaders, hide sexual struggles. How can you call them to be honest, and in what ways do you help them? We know that when leadership falls sexually, it deeply injures the church and how people see Christ.
How will your leaders approach sexual issues pastorally? Key leaders have the greatest influence, so it’s more important than ever to make sure they believe fully in what the Scriptures say and will speak that compassionately to those who struggle. Sometimes that’s not easy to do, but true compassion is grounded in speaking God’s truth, not in defining truth as we wish it to be.
How would your church address a leadership candidate who experiences same-sex attraction? As we call believers to openness and honesty about their sexual struggles, we should expect to find men and women who live with same-sex attraction and are living faithfully according to Scripture. When they pursue leadership roles in the church, what help and assistance do they need?
2. Membership—confronting complex issues
The culture greatly influences church members. Confusion is growing as pro-gay theology, rooted in secular thought, influences believers who know too little of Scripture. How will your church in this new reality address some of the following scenarios?
What if someone identifies as a gay Christian? Is this a private matter known only to some, or is this becoming public? Do you know what this person means by adopting this identity label?
What about someone who supports gay marriage and homosexuality? Again, is this a private opinion or an advocacy position? What is a pastoral approach to members whose views are in opposition to Scripture? What if someone with these views wants to join your church?
Are you talking about sex and sexuality to prospective members in your membership classes? Do you approach the issue from a discipline angle, or first from a Christian worldview perspective? Or do you not mention the topic at all, and if so, why not?
What if a same-sex couple comes to faith (one or both)? What if they are legally married? How do you approach the complex situation of pastorally shepherding a family, particularly when there are children, when the parents are legally married?
What about church discipline? While recognizing the complex issues involved with sexual sin, where might church discipline come into play as someone is being shepherded through the ups and downs that go with this struggle? Is there an approach that is more helpful, or less so?
3. Church Culture—what kind of church culture do you want to nurture?
Do you have a sense of the culture in your church in how it relates to the culture “out there?” How does your church address the new reality of sexual issues that are prominent in the culture? How do you speak about them publicly, from the pulpit, in Sunday school classes, in the things your church writes? There is a big difference between churches that speak harshly about sexual issues and those that say hardly anything at all. The first approach leaves people hiding, and the other leaves people in confusion. That we need to talk about these issues has never been more critical, but the words we use (or do not use) are equally important. How do you speak to those who are opposed to his ways; and to those who are confused about what Scripture says; and to those who want to obey but struggle to submit to the Lordship of Christ in this area? Our approach, our words, our faithfulness to Scripture, and our presence with those who struggle are the many ways we show who God is to them.
4. Policies and Procedures—possible dangers ahead
Two seismic changes have transformed the landscape for ministry: the legalization of same-sex marriage, and the use, or threat, of non-discrimination laws and regulations, known as sexual orientation and gender identity ordinances. Churches with a history and tradition of opening their doors to the community for weddings and receptions, local community events, outside groups that use the church to meet—all of these connections may become problematic in light of the increasing use of anti-discrimination ordinances.
These new laws and court rulings mean that churches must carefully think about ministry in three key areas.
While this issue gets a lot of press, the reality is that the First Amendment seems quite solid in protecting ministers from performing same-sex marriages. However, the matter is more uncertain if your church has been open to hosting outside weddings and receptions. What steps can your church take to remain open to traditional weddings while not hosting wedding events that oppose biblical truth?
Building usage by outside groups
Apart from weddings, building use for other outside events might become more difficult, particularly for churches that rent their facilities or allow them to be used by the community. The challenge for churches that want to remain invested in their local community is to determine how to both invite and define that involvement, in ways that will avoid potential lawsuits.
Anti-discrimination laws regarding employment are another new reality that is increasingly stepping on religious turf. Churches that discipline ordained staff for misconduct are again protected by the First Amendment. But addressing non-ordained staff behavior is not so clear. What if a staff person comes out as transgender, or a staff person legally marries someone of the same gender? Gender fluidity and sexual orientation are major battlegrounds for employment law today. The area of employment law for religious groups seems to be up for grabs today. How churches will be affected is not yet clear, but they should now find ways to try to protect themselves while also shepherding staff who are struggling in these areas.
We’ve just scratched the surface on a few of the crucial issues churches are facing with these new realities. Harvest USA can help! We can help you think through these issues and conduct a healthy conversation among your leaders.
Contact John Freeman at firstname.lastname@example.org to get the conversation started.
Desire in its best forms
God is a jealous, desiring God. How does one describe the unseen, all-knowing, omnipotent, ever-present God? Words and human experience can never do him justice. And yet, God uses words to teach us about himself. He is just, benevolent, holy, and sovereign. These descriptions evoke images of power, of needing nothing. God does not need anything, for in him everything obtains its life.
But notice, he does not only describe himself with terms of power and strength, but also with words that suggest desire and longing. God is not merely patient with us. No, he longs for us and would gather us to him as a hen would gather her chicks (Matthew 23:37). He pursues his wife (Israel) and hems her in even when she runs after other lovers (Hosea 2). He “burns” with jealousy for Zion so much so that he returns her to an honor she does not deserve (Zechariah 8:2-7), even paying the price himself for remarriage. If God desires us, longing for the glory he deserves from his creatures, then desire is not just something that we should resist.
God cares about and fulfills our desires
You cannot accuse God of being an ascetic or uncaring of your desires. We see numerous references to God’s attention to our desires. The Psalmist reminds God that he hears the desires of suffering people (10:17). He not only hears; he also acts. In Psalm 20 and 21, David sings of God’s hand in bringing about the desires of his heart. In Psalm 37, David clarifies the relationship between human desires and God’s response. When we delight in God, he delights to give us our desires (see also Matthew 5:6). He is a father who dotes on his children. He gives good things that satisfy (Psalm 103:5). Jesus picks up on this theme and reminds us that if we, who are evil, give good gifts to each other, then will not God, the creator of the universe, give good gifts to those who ask (Matthew 7:11)? Are you not yet convinced that God delights to fulfill your desires? Then listen to David as he bursts forth in song, “You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing. . . He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them” (Psalm 145:16,19).
I can hear your objection. “But wait,” you say, “There are many desires that God never fulfilled for me. If he longs to fulfill our desires, why didn’t he fulfill mine? Why do I feel so empty? I want to be healthy, married, a parent, happy, content, but my prayers seem to hit the ceiling and return to me.” I do not dispute that living in the wilderness leaves much to be desired. The misery of living in this sin-sick world multiplies daily. Yet, did not God provide for your desires today? Did you not eat? Did you not find momentary rest for your weary body? Did you not see his beauty reflected in something or someone? Ah, we are exposed. We grow complacent with God’s good gifts. They aren’t gifts in our minds, just something that everybody gets. We are far too often like the Israelites in the desert. We overlook the good things God gives us and obsess on what he did not give. God’s good gifts are no accident or afterthought—some sympathetic gesture to a waif. Rather he gives them out of the overflowing desire for his own glory and for the completion of all that he has willed. Every good gift you have received has come because God has ordained your existence in an abundantly provided world (see Psalm 65). He supplies you with your food and with whatever joy, peace, laughter, and righteousness you have experienced.
Fulfilled desires are sweet
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life… a desire fulfilled is sweet to the soul” (Proverbs 13:12,19a). These brief proverbs remind us of what we already know. When our desires are fulfilled, it is a satisfying moment. Even illicit gratification is satisfying, though deadly. “Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant” (Proverbs 9:17). Why else would we go back for more? When our desires are filled, we are comforted and secure. God comforts the brokenhearted and satisfies them with his bounty (Jeremiah 31:13-14). Satisfaction also brings joy and gladness. Moses supplicates, “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14). Satisfaction brings knowledge. The children of Israel, once filled with manna, know that the Lord is their God (Exodus 16:12).
Sexual desire is complex, compelling, and good
Why would God put the Song of Solomon in the Bible? Wouldn’t it be better to use that space to tell us more about himself? What purpose does an erotic book detailing the urges and orgasms of an anonymous couple serve the kingdom of God? The man spends numerous lines waxing poetic about her genitalia and how he wants to play with her. She shivers and aches for her climax. No, this is not a harlequin romance novel. In fact, it is probably more erotic and explicit about sexual desire than our English translations will admit. Those who try to spiritualize the text to mean only something of how God feels towards his church surely do God an injustice. And what of the mysterious phrase that appears in the book on three occasions, “Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires” (2:7, 3:5, 8:4)? These would seem to indicate that one must be careful with love and the power it wields. If you are not careful, your appetites may overwhelm you.
No, really, its best form
As good as sexual desire is, it pales next to desire for God and being united with Christ. The Psalms are full of descriptions of longings for God. David cries out for God, for his ways, his wisdom, and his presence. How are these depicted? There are numerous depictions of this desire as the cries of one who is thirsty and longing for water (e.g., Psalm 42:1; 63:1, 143:6.). In the New Testament, Paul records a similar sentiment. We groan while we are in this “tent” of a body and long for our guaranteed inheritance (II Corinthians 5:1-5). Notice that your good desires for God will bring upon yourself more pain! Doesn’t this run in stark contrast to much of our current depictions of the Christian life? “Come to Jesus,” we say, “and your life (as you have imagined it) will go well.” Instead, as we draw closer to God, our desire for him enlarges. Doesn’t this run in stark contrast to much of our current depictions of the Christian life? Satisfaction increases, but certainly so does agony as we develop an increasing awareness of our desperate need for God.
Yet do not be discouraged; our desires for God do not end in only pain. We do find satisfaction, comfort, fulfillment, joy, and peace. Psalm 131 depicts satisfaction with God as a baby on his mother’s lap whose stomach is filled, who no longer needs to grab at her breasts for more. When we take worship as our food, Isaiah records that we will delight “in the richest of fare” (Isaiah 55:2). These satisfactions are not just spiritual. Rather they reach out into the far corners of our lives. Solomon, who contemplated the search for satisfaction reminds his readers that any satisfaction we achieve has been a gift from God (Ecclesiastes 3:13).
Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part One
“Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (ESV).
What Paul is saying here is not terribly popular today. Not in the culture we live in, and increasingly not even in the church. We live in an age that many describe as one of sexual freedom and self-discovery (my sexuality reveals my true identity), and we hear that the Bible is a sexually repressive book, stuck in its ancient cultural time-period, so we need to just move on.
But what Paul says here is not only counter-cultural to us; it was also counter-cultural to those who heard him 2000 years ago. It wasn’t very popular then either! Biblical sexuality has never been something people are naturally or instinctually drawn to—but throughout the Scriptures, God’s message to us has been consistently clear:
What we do with our bodies matters. Our sexuality matters to God.
I’m struck by two things in this passage.
One, the force of Paul’s argument for why it matters that we live in accordance to God’s will for our lives sexually. Notice how many times and ways that Paul speaks about obeying the will of God regarding how to live with our sexuality.
V2: “you know what instructions we gave you through the the Lord Jesus.”
V3: For “this is the will of God, your sanctification . . . that you abstain from sexual immorality”
V4: “that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness”
V5: that you not live like those outside of Christ (“not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles”)
V6: “that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things…”
V 7: “For God has called us…to holiness”
V8: “whoever disregards this, disregards God”
Seven times Paul says that God places a high value on how we live with our sexuality. Seven times he says, in essence, that our sexual behavior reveals our spirituality—that how we live in our body is a barometer of our faith.
We live in a culture that proclaims that sex equals life. We hear that a life lived without sex is a tragedy, and our self-identities are increasingly defined by our sexual preferences or attractions. We are bombarded 24/7 with images, media, and cultural expressions that say that the meaning of life is about sex. No wonder this passage is being dismissed as out-of-sync with what is current.
But, two, I’m also struck by something else in this compact passage: that, in the face of cultural opposition (and probably even the opposition from and struggles of those who were new to the faith), Paul doesn’t water down the gospel on this matter. He doesn’t flinch in saying how important this is.
What Paul says here is difficult to follow, given the culture we live in, and taking into account how powerful our sexuality is.
Would it encourage you if I said that it was difficult for first-century Christians, also?
God knows that this is difficult for his people
Do you notice how Paul hints at this in verse 1? He mentions, first of all, that he was clear in his instruction on how to live as redeemed people: “that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing”—and then he adds, “and that you do so more and more.”
In other words, the Christians at Thessaloniki knew what to do, and they seemed to be moving in the right direction, but it appears they also struggled doing so. They didn’t have it down pat; they hadn’t mastered the subject, or else Paul would not have said, “. . . we ask and urge you. . . in the Lord Jesus” that they continue in that direction. I think this double appeal speaks volumes about their struggles here.
What’s happening in the church at Thessaloniki mirrors what we read in the letter of 1 Corinthians.
Almost the entire letter is a question and answer session between Paul and the church on all the problems the church had. Let me list them:
- There were divisions and factions fighting over leadership.
- Paul had to defend his apostolic ministry, because many thought Paul was an inferior apostle—there were better preachers out there than Paul.
- They had relational and business conflicts, and they were taking each other to court.
- They had marriage problems, divorces, struggles by those who were single.
- They had fights over worship, the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, etc.
- They had people in the church who questioned whether Jesus really rose from the dead.
And, you will notice this thread throughout the entire letter—they really struggled with sex and sexuality. Big time. Paul addressed matters of incest, prostitution, sex outside of marriage, distorted views of sex within marriage, and homosexuality. Sexuality was a big topic and a big problem in the church at Corinth. In fact, throughout all the new churches!
It looks like the first century church looks a lot like ours, doesn’t it? Is that discouraging to you? Does it make you wonder if anybody really follows Jesus, if obedience to Christ is even possible, especially in this area of life?
It shouldn’t. Remember the kind of person Jesus is; remember how he was described. In Luke 15:2, he was derisively referred to as the man who receives sinners. And eats with them, too! That’s us!
There is no ideal, pure church. As long as the church is following Christ, it will remain messy, because God saves messy people.
A healthy church is not one without problems, it’s one where problems are addressed with grace and truth (that’s the gospel—the good news of how God has rescued us). And if the gospel of grace and truth is being taught, then we will see people changing, but it’s God who does the changing in us. He knows that change—and the speed and quality of it—is unique to each person.
Today, the ever-present sexual struggles in the church are evidence by some that we need to rethink what the Bible says about sex. But what is unpopular now was unpopular then. In spite of the struggles of the early church, the message never wavered.
God is still calling his people to live with their sexuality in holiness, according to his design. And we are to do so even when we struggle. Especially as we struggle.
Christian spirituality has everything to do with our bodies. And that is why, after six times mentioning how important this is, on the seventh time Paul nails home the final point: Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
Our sexuality reveals our spirituality. How we live with our sexuality reveals the allegiance of our hearts. As Paul also wrote: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20).
(Looking ahead: more reasons Paul gives on following God faithfully with our sexuality and how to do it. )
Updated 5.12.2017, 5.31.2018
The second testimony in our series is written by “Susan,” who says, “My self-described labels changed…but my identity in Christ is secure and permanent!”
Twenty-one years into my marriage, my husband announced one day, “I’m leaving you for another woman.” I was devastated. I fell into a deep, emotional abyss as my life and my heart broke into a million tiny pieces. My friend, who had been talking to me for several years about Christ, stepped into my pain with gentleness and love. Into my broken world she ministered to me, sitting with me for hours as I poured out my pain and my tears. She read to me from the Bible and continued to share Jesus with me.
Several months later, I did ask Jesus into my heart and accepted him as my Savior. My friend and I continued to meet almost daily. Ours was a completely new level of relationship for me. With her I felt complete and deeply known for the first time in my life. I needed her desperately and soon began to long for her when she was absent. Without noticing it, my life began to revolve around our time together. When we were together, she held me as I cried, rubbed my back, and dried my tears. Her touch was such a comfort to me, and there was an intense feeling of being connected. It was just a matter of time before we moved into sexual touching and then a full sexual relationship. Even as a new Christian, I knew that this was not okay with God, and I struggled to understand how what felt so right could be wrong. After several years, our secret relationship became public, and what then began as a new devastation in my life was actually the first step of a new journey into wholeness.
This new struggle lasted for many years. I have moved from identifying myself as a lesbian, to a woman who struggles with same-sex attraction, to a follower of Jesus who has experienced relational brokenness. I have learned, with the help of godly counsel and Bible study, that the intense, all-consuming, emotional connection I craved from another person was not God’s design for healthy relationships. What I perceived as intimacy was a dysfunctional enmeshment, an entanglement of two relationally broken people looking to each other to fill the space that only God can fill. I had put my relationship with my friend on the throne of my life, occupying the place that belongs only to Jesus. Praise God that he continues to heal me as I seek to worship only him and find the answer to all of my longings in Christ.
Notice how “Susan” describes the change she experienced in her sense of identity: from lesbian to same-sex struggler to a follower of Christ who battles temptation in this area. How is this hopeful for you as a woman or man who is tempted to cross God-designed sexual boundaries in order to feel loved?
The first testimony in this series is written by Ellen Dykas, Harvest USA’s Women’s Ministry Coordinator. She writes about being ‘spousal-sexual’—is it a new category to consider?
After I began to serve with Harvest USA, I attended an Exodus International conference in 2008 and participated in an open discussion among women’s ministry leaders who serve in sexual-wholeness related ministries. The focus of our discussion that day was this heated question: Is change really possible for the same-sex attracted person? In the room were nearly 25 women from all over the country, and they talked about the different stories of their homosexual experiences.
Many of the women were now living lives of sexual abstinence as singles, after having turned to Christ. There were a few women who, while at one time openly identifying as gay, were now married to Christian men. Others, who through emotional dependency found themselves in homosexual relationships, were now growing wisely in loving other women well within godly boundaries.
All their stories were testimonies of change, each one specific to her unique life. One testimony, however, really hit my heart. A married woman named Ann said, “You know, I’m not attracted to women anymore, but I’m also not attracted to men; yet I adore my husband!”
Ann’s story of having grown in her identity in being a loved daughter of God, and then being ‘spousal-sexual,’ really rang true for me personally. I am not someone who is same-sex attracted, but I am also someone who hasn’t had the “typical” heterosexual crushes that my friends all had. There have been a few men with whom I have experienced emotional and physical attraction, but for most of my life I felt very “other.” I didn’t seem to fit in any category.
But Ann’s words really taught me afresh that it only takes one man to be a husband! So, I began to focus my prayers for relationship along this path: “Lord, if you have marriage for me, then I ask you to keep my heart and ALL my attractions guarded until and unless they be focused on
the man you’d have me to marry. I want to be ‘husband-sexual!’”
This freed me up so much and was another huge way the Lord moved in my own heart years ago to grow me in seeking to have my heart set on Christ and his will, rather than fitting into categories of sexuality that our culture (and the church, too) have defined as our identities.
For my next three blog posts, I’ll be sharing testimonies from women who have wrestled with same-sex attraction and also have been a part of the ministry of Harvest USA. Each of these sisters will share their unique stories and personal thoughts on how Christ brings true “change.”
What are your thoughts about the idea of “spousal sexuality?” Do you think as a category it is helpful or unhelpful? Please share your thoughts!
31 Jul 2012
Paige Benton Brown spoke at the 2012 The Gospel Coalition’s Women’s Conference from 1 Kings 8 and gave a rich exhortation concerning how we do or do not reveal that we are the temple of God. As Paige phrased the question, “Do we have a quality of ‘templeness’ within us?” In her talk, Paige was actually one of the two women I heard who did apply her message to sexual sin in women. She brought out the challenging but rich calling that we all have to be the home of the Lord:
“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, ESV).
Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Our bodies are not our own to do with them whatever we please. This is a powerfully counter-cultural message, especially when the spirit of our age proclaims individual autonomy and self-expression as the core foundation of our identities.
Sisters, when we attach ourselves romantically to our female friends; when we relate sensually to one another physically and perhaps even sexually; when we chat sexually with others with our mouths, texts, and keyboards; and when we are sexual with ourselves or anyone who is not our husband, we are failing to give glory to Jesus, our King, Savior, Healer of our hearts, and Lord of our bodies. We are in fact being sexually ‘insane’ if we pursue self-expression and autonomy from God. Such an attitude reveals a deceived and rebellious heart that demands to do what I want, when I want, and with whom I want.
Do you not know that your body is a temple of God? Will you not treat yourself and your body as God sees you? Will you allow Jesus to rein you in to himself with love and kindness and to rule over your desires, fears, relationships, and sexuality?
Why would you want to do that? Because you were bought with a high price, the life of Jesus himself, so that you could live in the glorious freedom and beauty of being the woman God calls you to be.
To develop these ideas further and glorify God with your sexuality, check out one of Harvest USA’s mini books, Sex and the Single Girl: Smart Ways to Care for Your Heart, which is available in the Harvest USA bookstore. Also, we have a curriculum for women who are struggling sexually, called Sexual Sanity for Women: Healing for Relational and Sexual Brokenness. This resource was written to assist you in delving more deeply into the hope and redemptive ‘sanity’ that the gospel of grace promises to us in our relational and sexual brokenness! Visit the Harvest USA Online Store to take a look at our resources.