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.