Homosexuality

Homosexuality: One pastor’s reflection

The author suggests some ways that pastors and churches can give pastoral care to gay people and their families.

Bruce Manners, PhD, is a recently retired pastor residing in Melbourne, Australia.

Homosexuality is both a divisive and an awkward topic. When someone “comes out,” there is a natural inclination to want to keep them, and the topic, in the closet. Yet, if we are serious about ministry, that will include ministering to gay1 people within and outside the church—but especially within. And that must include ministry to the often-forgotten families of gay people.

As evangelical Christians, we take the Bible seriously. We want to take it literally where possible—as it reads in our various translations. Read in this way, the Bible is seen to condemn homosexuality. Of course, some argue that there are alternative interpretations of the biblical texts, and among them individuals whose scholarship I respect. However, I am not convinced by their arguments.

But what position you take on the texts does not really matter when the majority of people in our churches take the biblical texts as they find them, which means the predominant attitude is condemnation. How then do we, as pastors and churches, give pastoral care to gay people and their families?

Three learning experiences

More than 20 years ago I learned firsthand, and for the first time, something about the pain gay Adventists suffer. As the then editor of the South Pacific Division’s Record, we published an extensive article on homosexuality. This was a significant and balanced article that had first appeared in Insight magazine.2

I was surprised to receive several responses from Adventist gay people and discovered something of the pain they felt. They contacted me to tell their story and of their struggles. One of them was a pastor who wondered whether he could continue in ministry with this burden.3 My contact with them lasted for only a brief time, but I still feel the sadness they had in their lives.

About five years ago, as pastor of Avondale College Church, my pastoral staff and I promised our congregation we would preach on the top ten topics they came up with. Homosexuality was one of them. I struggled with how to approach the topic, but decided to preach on how we as a church should respond to gay people. That seemed a more pressing issue than to enter into things like the nurture-nature debate or to review the biblical texts again. Besides, preaching for action is always better than preaching to give information. 

I also decided that I would talk to a few gay people and their families to get a real picture of what was happening. Almost all of the Adventist gay people I found had given up on church, and most were suspicious of my intentions. Only a couple would talk to me. They felt their church had rejected them. They were in pain, and so were their families.

Two years ago (at another church) I found we had six mothers of gay children in my church of about 250 attendees. Each of them thought they were the only ones living with this situation. From my Avondale College Church experience, I had discovered that the mothers, more than fathers, wanted to talk about their experience, so I invited them home one Sabbath afternoon to meet each other. Any of them could pull out at the last minute without the others knowing who they were. None of them knew who else would be there until they arrived.

There was this fascinating moment of surprise and recognition as they met each other. Each one told their story.

There was pain, but also sympathy and understanding. There were tears, but for the first time others in their situation wept with them.

Storying the pain

The pain and confusion of individuals struggling with their sexual identity is well documented, but it becomes real when you meet pain and confusion up close. Several gay people have told me about suicidal thoughts as they battled with the feelings they had while coming to terms with their orientation and the fact that they could find no way to be rid of it.

I talked to a former Avondale College student who had been one of the most active and involved individuals in my time on campus. He had passion and enthusiasm for his Christianity and Adventism, and his witness was strong. He was often featured leading devotional programs, but no one knew that he was falling apart inside as he battled with his homosexuality.

His desperate prayers for release had not been answered, and his life was becoming more confusing and chaotic. He not only contemplated suicide, he rigged his dorm room ready for the act. He was about to put his plan into action when a fellow student knocked on his door. Both of them still sense that God had arranged the visit at that time, on that day—the other student had not planned to stop by until “prompted by God.” It saved this gay man his life.

A couple returned home after church one Sabbath to find that their son, in his late teens, had shredded his Bible into small pieces and scattered them through every room of the house. He had also been agonizing with God to take away his gay tendencies.

When his parents asked why he did it, he replied, “If God won’t listen to me, why should I listen to Him?”

When I talked to another couple about their gay daughter, there was a moment when there was a pause, and then, in that silence, the mother said, “I wish she had never been born.”

The pain and the trauma are real. Here we have lives at risk, lives in need of love. In need of compassion.

A Jesus example?

We know Jesus had a heart for people and targeted those with deep issues in their lives, including demon possession. Unfortunately, no record of Him ministering to gay people exists that could serve as a model. However, His interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well provides a helpful guide.

The first thing to notice in this encounter is their religious differences. As a Samaritan, the woman used a different “Bible” than Jesus did (the five books of Moses only). She sacrificed in a different temple (on Mount Gerizim, not on Mount Zion). And she waited for a different messiah from the One who stood before her (one like Moses, not one in the line of David).

All this was instructional in itself, but the big thing? She had a messed-up life. She had had five husbands. And she was currently, as we used to phrase it, “living in sin.”

Jesus demonstrated respect for her. Much more respect than she could expect from any other Jew, and prob­ably more than she had from fellow Samaritans. He demonstrated care, concern, and compassion.

Jesus came to rescue people, not to condemn them (see John 3:17). He reserved His serious criticism for religious hypocrites (see, for instance, Matthew 23). He set the example.

What can we do?

We need to be aware of the prob­ability that we will have people who are gay or, even more likely, have fam­ily members of a gay person in our congregation. You will never be able to minister to them at a deep level if you hold a negative attitude or use harsh language against gay people or homosexuality. They will think you do not understand the pain and cannot be trusted with theirs.

Ask yourself whether you want your congregation to be a support for individuals who are struggling with their sexual identity and of their fami­lies. There are other people whom gay people will find who will listen and talk to them. A pastor friend of mine once gave it forceful clarity by saying, “What we’re asking is: do we want them in our church or in the gay bars?”

These are discussions to have with the key players in your church, espe­cially elders and ministry leaders. If they are not on board, they may cause you grief.

We pastors need to have a sympa­thetic ear when a gay person comes out to us. They do not find it easy to do this, and it shows a great deal of trust on their part. Confidentiality is important. If they are suicidal, this must be addressed immediately. The suicide rate among young gay people is estimated at four times higher than among those who are straight, and nine times higher if their families reject them.4 Keeping them alive is a first priority.

Connecting mothers (or parents) is really helpful for them. They no longer feel alone with the sense that they are the only ones going through this. However, discovering who they are is not easy. Do not force it, though. Some need time to be ready for something like this.

When the time is right, it might be helpful for the parents to talk to selected church groups about their experience. Until the church under­stands the realities and trauma that happens in the family and with the gay individual, they will not know that support is needed. It becomes real when one of their own shares their experience. They will be given a sym­pathetic hearing. I suggest parents, because it may be too confronting for the gay person or the church members first up—and it could lead to a negative result. Encourage friends to continue their friendship with the one who has come out as gay. He or she will need them and their support.

Some may feel they are lowering their “standards” or ignoring a biblical injunction if they reach out. Not so. We will be known as disciples of Jesus as we show love for each other (see John 13:35)—including our gay people.

The broad church has and needs to have policies on many issues, including homosexuality. These policies give a big-picture approach. However, it is at the local church where the flesh-and-blood application is worked out. This is where the challenge comes to applying them in a loving and caring way that demonstrates Christlikeness.

A pastoral and church response

I am a pastor, not an expert in this field, and my involvement in this kind of ministry has been limited and sporadic. As a pastor, though, when one of my people hurts, I want to be there for them. That is one of our God-given responsibilities.

I remember being told of an older, retired pastor who was at a wedding reception when someone pointed out a young woman on the other side of the hall who had been a member in one of his congregations. She was struggling after having recently come out as gay. Having heard that, he immediately crossed the hall and hugged her. I do not know what he said, but the hug signaled that she was loved.

I want to be that kind of pastor.

I am proud of a couple in one of my churches that discovered another couple struggling after their son had come out as gay. Not knowing what else to do, they invited this couple and their son home for Sabbath lunch—every Sabbath for more than a year. This gave these parents the opportunity to talk, vent, and, occasionally, weep with someone who cared.

I want my church filled with this kind of people.

I will give the last word to mothers. So many of them told me something like:

I know what the Bible says, but I still love my son or daughter. So they should.

And so should we. Knowing what the Bible says, we should also love their sons and daughters. That is bottom-line Christianity. That is where the compas­sion of Christ begins.

Side-Bar: Lessons Learned Along the Way

  • The nature or nurture (born with or learned) argu­ment of the origins of homosexuality—and any of the other numerous theories—may make for good intellectual discussion and debate, but it really has little value when an individual is struggling with their sexual identity. They really do not care about the origins; they simply want it to go away.1
  • Gay people will often tell you that this is the way God made them. No argument will change that. To them the statement “God loves the sinner, but not the sin” is quite offensive because you are saying that God made a mistake when He made them.2
  • Celibacy is as hard for gay people as for heterosexuals.
  • We are harsher on gay than heterosexual misdemeanors.
  • Adventist parents are hoping against hope that their gay child can continue to stay church-connected in some way. So few do.
  • It is incredibly difficult for most individuals to change their gay orientation. This does not underestimate the power of God but is a warning that God does not always intervene to take away this cross. The public apologies to gay people from the well-known “change ministry” should be a warning that change is not easy.3
  • Occasionally there are those who claim victory over their homosexuality. Let us rejoice with them and pray for their continued success; but let us also not expect their story to be everyone’s story.
  • Gay people feel alienated from and by the church. For many, the conflict seems overwhelming, and they have the sense that the church’s official views leave them with nowhere to go.
  • Gay people mostly do not make big demands on their church when they come out. They tend to understand the difficulties their situation places on the church. But they would like to know they are welcome. They want friendships to continue.

1. I was talking to the mother of the boy who shredded his Bible about the nature-nurture debate when she stopped me and said, “What does it matter? This is who he is.”

2 Micah J. Murray, a Christian, says it this way: “I can’t look my gay brother in the eye anymore and say, ‘I love the sinner but hate the sin’ because that labels him ‘Sinner.’ ” See “Why I Can’t Say ‘Love the Sinner/Hate the Sin’ Anymore,” Huff Post Religion, The Blog, December 31, 2013, huffingtonpost. com/micah-j-murray/why-i-cant-say-love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin-anymore_b_4521519.html.

3 Alan Chambers, the Exodus International president, made a public apology to gay people that included: “I am sorry for the pain and hurt that many of you have experienced. I am sorry some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt when your attractions didn’t change.” “Exodus Int’l President to the Gay Community: ‘We’re Sorry,’ ” Alan Chambers, June 19, 2013, alanchambers.org/exodus-intl-president-to-the-gay-community-were-sorry. Dr. Robert L. Spitzer wrote a letter of apology published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior where his research results had been published in 2003: “I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy” (http://www. truthwinsout.org/news/2012/04/24542/).

  • Th

 

 

 

  • e nature or nurture (born with or learned) argu­ment of the origins of homosexuality—and any of the other numerous theories—may make for good intellectual discussion and debate, but it really has little value when an individual is struggling with their sexual identity. They really do not care about the origins; they simply want it to go away.1
  • Gay people will often tell you that this is the way God made them. No argument will change that. To them the statement “God loves the sinner, but not the sin” is quite offensive because you are saying that God made a mistake when He made them.2
  • Celibacy is as hard for gay people as for heterosexuals.
  • We are harsher on gay than heterosexual misdemeanors.
  • Adventist parents are hoping against hope that their gay child can continue to stay church-connected in some way. So few do.
  • It is incredibly difficult for most individuals to change their gay orientation. This does not underestimate the power of God but is a warning that God does not always intervene to take away this cross. The public apologies to gay people from the well-known “change ministry” should be a warning that change is not easy.3
  • Occasionally there are those who claim victory over their homosexuality. Let us rejoice with them and pray for their continued success; but let us also not expect their story to be everyone’s story.
  • Gay people feel alienated from and by the church. For many, the conflict seems overwhelming, and they have the sense that the church’s official views leave them with nowhere to go.
  • Gay people mostly do not make big demands on their church when they come out. They tend to understand the difficulties their situation places on the church. But they would like to know they are welcome. They want friendships to continue.

1. I was talking to the mother of the boy who shredded his Bible about the nature-nurture debate when she stopped me and said, “What does it matter? This is who he is.”

2 Micah J. Murray, a Christian, says it this way: “I can’t look my gay brother in the eye anymore and say, ‘I love the sinner but hate the sin’ because that labels him ‘Sinner.’ ” See “Why I Can’t Say ‘Love the Sinner/Hate the Sin’ Anymore,” Huff Post Religion, The Blog, December 31, 2013, huffingtonpost. com/micah-j-murray/why-i-cant-say-love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin-anymore_b_4521519.html.

3 Alan Chambers, the Exodus International president, made a public apology to gay people that included: “I am sorry for the pain and hurt that many of you have experienced. I am sorry some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt when your attractions didn’t change.” “Exodus Int’l President to the Gay Community: ‘We’re Sorry,’ ” Alan Chambers, June 19, 2013, alanchambers.org/exodus-intl-president-to-the-gay-community-were-sorry. Dr. Robert L. Spitzer wrote a letter of apology published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior where his research results had been published in 2003: “I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy” (http://www. truthwinsout.org/news/2012/04/24542/).

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Bruce Manners, PhD, is a recently retired pastor residing in Melbourne, Australia.

January 2016

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