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.

Weddings
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.

Staff behavior
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 john@harvestusa.org to get the conversation started.

Click here for the first part of this two-part blog post, When Women’s Friendships Turn Sexual – Part 1, in which Ellen describes the kind of friendship between women that crosses over relational boundary lines into emotionally and sexually enmeshed relationships. 

God’s Word brings clarity and a new direction

God’s Word speaks hope and clarity to women who find themselves in relational lifestyles of emotionally enmeshed and sexually unholy, same-sex attachments. John 15 reorients our hearts as we long for a safe place to call home.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (John 15:1-17, ESV)

In this passage, Jesus describes himself as the true vine, and we are to be intimately connected to him as branches. He is the only one in whom we are to dwell in such intimacy and closeness. Female-to-female emotional and sexual entanglements are a distortion of John 15, as two “female branches” seek to make their partner the vine from which they draw their life.

                       Our true home is a person: Jesus Christ

The key to understanding the metaphor of vine/branches is first found in John 14:23, when Jesus says, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” Then, in the next chapter, Jesus explains this new “home:” it is a home that gives hope to women who long for deeper relationships. Women can be wonderful friends, Christian sisters, and spiritual companions to each other. They are meant to be branches living closely alongside each other. But branches are meant to be branches, not vines! Branches make lousy and destructive vine replacements! Only Jesus Christ is true Life, Security, Savior, and a HOME in whom we live and move and have our being.

Consider some biblical realities from Jesus’ words about what deep connection with Christ looks like, and apply it to yourself or the woman you know who is living somewhere along the spectrum of female homosexuality.

  • I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing (v.5). Jesus explains that he is the vine and source of true life and what a life in God is meant to be. In him, we are branches and are created to remain, abide, and dwell in Christ. This language speaks of our deep connection with Jesus and the promise of John 14:23 being true in a person’s life.

Women who are drawn into these same-sex relationships are in one way or another seeking from another woman the kind of deep connection that should be reserved for God alone. Of course, this applies to heterosexual relationships as well. Branches are not meant to abide in one another or in isolation from one other. God’s healthy boundaries for relationships affirm intimacy and closeness, but when two women shrink their relational world to an entangled twosome, the relationship becomes an idolatrous, life-dominating focus.

Thoughts to ponder if you are a struggler:

  1. What initial steps can I take to disentangle myself from this woman?
  2. With whom can I talk to, think this through, and pray?
  3. How do I need to grow in my understanding of remaining (abiding and dwelling) in Jesus Christ?
  4. How do I need to let women off the hook for being a Jesus replacement in my life? (See Psalms 16 and 146, Colossians 3:1-17, James 5:16)
  • If you remain in me and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples (vs. 7-8). Jesus gives a promise that comes from obedience to his command: As his words and truth make a home in us, our desires will increasingly be conformed to his will and purposes. Our thought lives will increasingly become free of obsession with one person as we learn to focus on him. Our affections will grow in being outward-focused on others, rather than on comforting ourselves through one intense relational connection. Our lives will grow in being increasingly uncluttered from the emotional prison of an enmeshed and dependent (idolatrous) relationship with another woman.

Thoughts to ponder:

  1. What fills my thoughts and to what degree am I enslaved by fantasy or fear related to this friend or lover?
  2. What steps do I need to take in learning how to have God’s Word become a home in me?
  3. Who can I ask for help to learn how to have my mind transformed and my thoughts cleansed from so many sexual memories? (See 1 John 1:9, Romans 12:1-2, Phil. 4:4-8, Psalm 86:11)
  • I am the true vine and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more Fruit. . . As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love (v. 1-2, 9-10). These verses offer promises for those who are in Christ (the cut-off branches refer to those who reject salvation in Jesus). Our loving Father is committed to shaping our lives to increasingly reflect the character of Christ. His pruning process is painful, and it will lead through valleys of loss, grief, and emotional pain. The road away from an enmeshed, same-sex sexual relationship is one that is painful and full of loss. Anguish and grief are real as a woman surrenders to the merciful pruning of Father God, turns from the Jesus-replacement in her life, and takes steps of loving obedience as an act of worship and trust, learning to abide in Jesus’ love.

Thoughts to ponder:

  1. Pray for courage and strength to walk in obedience! If God is calling you to let go of an unholy relationship with a woman, is there a mature Christian you can go to for help, encouragement, prayer, accountability?
  2. Jesus speaks of loving obedience and obedient love. Ask him to give you a desire to obey him and to grow in trusting his love for you. Jesus said one of the reasons he came is to heal the brokenhearted (see Isaiah 61 and Luke 4:18-20). It is through relationship with him that your hurting heart, and the places of pain in your life that have influenced you towards same-sex attraction, can be healed.

Although this article focused on one aspect of the female homosexual experience—the pull of emotional idolatry between women—there are many other facets that this blog post cannot totally describe. The next blog post will give a testimony of one women’s story.

Please feel free to drop me an email to talk about these things, ellen@harvestusa.org

This is one family’s story about being caught in the middle between family and faith, finding hope and strength with other parents in Harvest USA’s Parent Support Group.

 Click here for Chris’ article, “Caught in the Middle Between Family and Faith,” about the impact on parents when a child comes out. 

We were directed to the ministry of Harvest USA from a counselor shortly after finding out about our child’s struggle with same-sex attraction. Like many parents hearing such news for the first time, we were confused and shocked. We felt like our lives had been turned upside down. We didn’t know where we should turn for help or what we should do.

What do we “get and give” while being a member of this support group?

We learn a great deal about God, about ourselves, and about what our children are going through. It was so hard at first to comprehend that one of our children could be struggling with their sexuality. We wished that our child’s sexual identity could change with counseling or reasoning from God’s Word. We came to understand that simple or easy changes were not going to happen, but in the fellowship of the group we are reminded that God is sovereign over us and our child, that he is in control, and that our world is not collapsing around us. God is our deep comfort, and one way he does this is through our brothers and sisters in the group.

We feel connected; no longer alone. We are able to talk with other parents as well as get God’s perspective as we look into his word. To be hurting in isolation is so painful. To have other brothers and sisters in Christ come alongside and share their stories and experiences with their own children gave us hope and strength during a difficult time.

We feel safe. The group is a safe place to cry, to be able to release our feelings, and to not feel like we’re the only ones dealing with such feelings.

We pray and are prayed for. It feels good to know that others are praying for us and our child, and that we could pray for them too. Praying for others in the group and coming alongside them helps us to get our attention off of our own child and to engage with others who need prayer and support too. In the entire group experience, but especially during prayer, we come to live out what Paul said in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”

We learn how to love with Christ’s love. The staff at Harvest USA has helped us see how God wants us to respond to our children and how we should engage the culture on this issue with compassion and truth. We’ve gained new insight into how to demonstrate God’s grace and love to our children.

We are changed. God has used this group to change us as parents. Scripture teaches us that God uses everything that happens to a believer for his or her good. Our struggle with our child’s same-sex attraction has deepened our love for our children and has made us more sensitive to this issue that is so much a part of our culture today. We have learned that we all struggle with sin and that sin originates from idols that we hold dear to us. Same-sex attraction is no different from any other sin; it originates in our hearts. Understanding the frailties of our own heart and also our child’s heart helps us to respond to our children and our culture as Christ would.

We find God to be a deep refuge. The Parent Support Group at Harvest USA is a refuge, a conduit of God’s grace in a culture struggling to understand and deal with sexual identity as God intended it to be. As it says in Nahum 1:7, “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him” (ESV).

To find out how a Parent Support Group can be started in your church, or if you want to consider joining ours in Philly, contact Chris Torchia at chris@harvestusa.org.

For more support for parents and churches, contact Brooke Delaney at brooke@harvestusa.org to find out how your church can host our “Shattered Dreams/New Hope” one-day seminar.

Updated 5.22.2017

I’ve worked closely with Mitchell (name has been changed), a member in one of our men’s Biblical Support Groups. Mitchell struggles with depression, sometimes to the point of entertaining suicidal thoughts. Mitchell feels hopeless: He’s middle-age, single, unemployed, and right now living in his parent’s home. His loneliness feels unbearable. Challenging him to reach out and connect with others, both in the support group and at his church, is, well, a challenge. You see, his same-sex attraction increases his loneliness in the church.

But community is vital; it matters, so I keep gently encouraging him to move out of his loneliness by believing that Jesus is present in his life, and that, being filled with Christ, he can approach people not from a needy emptiness, but from a filled heart that can give to others.

Men like Mitchell need deep, strong friendships, as we all do. But it is more vital for men like him who live with same-sex attraction. Sadly, those with same-sex attraction deeply fear rejection and therefore increase their loneliness in the body of Christ. But it is in Christ’s body, the community of his people, where we are to learn to be fully present with others in our weakness and struggles. “If one member (of Christ’s body) suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26, ESV).

How far the church still needs to go to be that kind of community!

Recently, he sent me an email that shows how far he has come:

This morning as soon as I began the thought, “What man’s arms are around me? I’m lonely!” I stopped. I acknowledged that no man’s were, and no man’s ever would be. But this time I began to picture in my mind Jesus at the end of my bed with his hand on my back; just being there. I imagined him holding me (you always say, Dave, that we are the bride of Christ). Though I wish I could see, feel, and touch Jesus, I never will in this life, but I acknowledged he was there and hadn’t abandoned me. That in that room, in the early hours of the morning, he was with me saying it was okay.

And I believe it. In this moment I believe it’s okay. The depression, the joblessness, the dependence on another for my survival, it’s all okay. I realize now that, especially in the dark days, I have to reach past my own hopelessness and dig deeper to find and hold on to the hope that is Christ. I am far from having this down yet, but I am closer.

I praise God for his good work in Mitchell’s heart. His story displays the power of God’s work in community, where in our Biblical Support Group Mitchell is slowly learning how to cling to Christ for comfort during loneliness and for courage to reach out to engage with others, where he is beginning to establish relationships with men as a fellow brother in Christ.

I pray that what we have in our support groups would be replicated in our church communities! Maybe Mitchell, in his weakness, will lead his church to become the kind of community Christ desires it to be.

Updated 5.25.2017

Washed and Waiting is a series of Christian theological and personal reflections written by a doctoral student who struggles with same-sex attraction. Wesley Hill begins his story as a secret, frightened believer with forbidden yearnings in the church. He ends his biography as an open, integrated member of Christian community who has chosen celibacy as a lifestyle of faithfulness for Christ. The book is almost devotional at points, exploring the spiritual nuances of the gospel as they apply to his struggle. Even if he weren’t addressing same-sex yearnings, he provides us with a model of what growing discipleship looks like as we live in a broken world.

This is not a “success” story. There is little movement away from his same-sex attractions during the course of his story, and Hill says he cannot even imagine what the absence of these desires might look like in his life. But we do see personal transformation in how he increasingly understands and welcomes his celibate struggle as an impetus and means to deepen his relationship with Christ. After all, intimacy and union with Christ are the ultimate goals for all believers.

In the introduction, Hill explains his terminology. He calls himself a “gay Christian” and, more frequently, a “homosexual Christian.” Since we hear this term from those who want to legitimize homosexual relations as a “Christian” alternative, it feels uncomfortable—probably both to those who want to legitimize homosexual practice and to those who reject it. At Harvest USA, we feel that using a sexual orientation qualifier for Christians lessens one’s full and primary identity in Christ (see this blog for an excellent discussion on this topic).

But Hill is absolutely on target in reminding us that there is, and always has been, a slice of the Christian church who have struggled, usually silently, with same-sex attraction while remaining faithful to Christ in their lifestyle. Hill provides a number of well-known names as representatives; there are more than we realize. God calls us in the church to understand, empathize, and support them. Like all of us, whatever our sexual attractions, they are broken people, and Christ walks with them in their suffering.

You can’t take this journey of celibacy without accepting that sin causes basic human brokenness. Same-sex attraction is, like all forms of brokenness, a result of the human race’s fall in Adam. And like all effects of the Fall in our lives, we struggle to attain the goal of personal holiness for which Christ calls all of us to strive as we wait for the coming glory when sexuality will no longer be an issue, and intimacy will be complete in Christ. Those who have a small vision of the coming glory—when the coming of Christ will usher in a restored humanity and world—who see sexual intimacy as a right, and who refuse suffering as part of the spiritual journey, will struggle with Hill’s book. But those who long for deep intimacy with Christ, understand the relational power of Christian community, and find Christian waiting profitable in the long run, will find this book encouraging and full of hope.

Part 2., Part 3., Part 4.

Updated 5.5.2017

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