“Whosoever will . . .” Embracing everyone

“Come to Me, all . . .” (Matt. 11:28, NKJV). Is there really a place for everyone?

David Penno, PhD, is associate professor of Christian Ministry, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

Previously I published an article in Ministry about personal happiness, self-fulfillment, and homosexuality in the church.1 A friend of mine challenged me to write about how the church can minister to persons with same-sex attraction in a healthy way. I decided to accept the challenge, but in the process the focus became extended to all who have strong urgings for sexual relationships outside the biblical description of the gift of sex as properly expressed only in a marriage relationship between a man and a woman (Gen. 2:22–25; Eph. 5:22–33; Col. 3:18, 19; 1 Peter 3:1–7).2 So the ideas expressed in this article would apply to heterosexuals, homosexuals, and bisexuals.

I have intentionally excluded discussing ministry to those who are transgender or pedophiles—the former because the Bible seems to say little, if anything, on the subject (we need more research on this topic) and the latter because safety issues for children and the laws of certain countries make that type of ministry much more complicated. There is a need for separate articles on both of these areas of ministry.

The Bible clearly calls Christians to minister to, and to invite to discipleship, all persons in the world (Matt. 28:19, 20; Rev. 14:6). This includes persons who have sexual attractions that are outside the biblical design, whether they act on those desires or not. We do not have the option to ignore, reject, or marginalize them (nor should we do this to anyone else; all people are important to God). So the question becomes, how do we make room for everyone?

There are at least three levels of relationship that the church has with persons who struggle in the area of sexual expression. The order in which I present these levels is from what is probably the least controversial to the most. The first level involves the basic way we should relate to all human beings, the second discusses persons who are guests and attendees at church activities, and the third addresses official membership in the church organization. All three of these levels relate to how people belong to the community of faith.

Our responsibility to love everyone

This first level requires that, as Christians, we are to treat everyone with dignity, respect, and value because through Creation and Redemption, all are valuable and precious to God. Paul says that God created all humans from one original human (Acts 17:26); and Jesus died for every person on the planet (John 3:16). There is simply no room for any type of physical violence, abuse, disrespect, scorn, ridicule, belittling, marginalizing, or demeaning of anyone who struggles with sexual temptations or orientation. Jesus’ example as He related to the woman caught in adultery (John 8) and the woman at the well (John 4) should be normative for believers today.

Unfortunately, there have been a few Christians (and a few congregations) that have conducted shameful demonstrations that used derisive terms and remarks to demean homosexuals and others. This is always wrong, and as church leaders and congregations, we should rebuke such activities as un-Christian and immoral. We must make room for everyone to be treated with kindness and love, as members of the human race created in the image of God.

For some, it may be a struggle to see everyone as valuable and worthy of respect. Because of expressions of contempt that they have observed in others, they may wrestle to reject such attitudes. But as disciples of Jesus, we must battle against such expressions. One day, I took my wife on the train from Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA, where we live, to Chicago, Illinois, for her birthday. After several stops, it became clear from the clothing some passengers were wearing and signs others held that they were going to attend a gay pride parade. Later, as we tried to make our way to a favorite restaurant, we actually walked along the parade route. I must admit that at first, when I realized what was happening, some uneasy feelings arose in my heart. But as I thought about it, I saw that these feelings were unfounded. The people on the train and at the parade were, first and foremost, people. And, except for their sexual orientation, they were in many respects just like me. With these thoughts, the ill feelings disappeared. As Christians, we have an obligation to fight the temptation to see persons as “less than.” Viewing people as less valuable is the foundation for abuse and marginalization. 

I would think that most would agree with what I have said here, that we should value all persons and treat them with respect, including those whose sexual urges or practices are outside the biblical norm. There is probably not much controversy here. Then there is a second level of relationship.

Our responsibility to welcome everyone

Many years ago, I had the privilege of ministering to a young man who had contracted AIDS. Some of his family members were Seventh-day Adventists, and they asked me, as an Adventist pastor, to visit with him. So I went to his home. We developed a friendship, and he began to attend our church. The members graciously received him as their guest. After a few more weeks, this young man went to the hospital; it was to be his last journey. As I visited him in his room, we shared Bible passages, talked about spiritual things, and prayed together. He was very open to God and His love. I cannot say what the man’s eternal destiny will be, but that is not the point. I was able to share God’s grace and love with him and to relate to him as a fellow human being, not as a “spiritual superior”—both of us unworthy but thankful for God’s grace and mercy.

This second level of relationship may evoke more disagreement—but probably not to a high degree. We want to welcome everyone as guests to our services and activities. So whether a person is acting sexually outside the biblical ideal or is resisting those strong temptations, we want them to attend the church’s Bible study services, worship services, prayer meetings, social activities, community service activities, fellowship dinners, evangelistic meetings, baptismal services, and small groups. Participation in the Communion service may cause some members to demur. However, Jesus allowed Judas, an active thief in the process of betraying Jesus, to participate. But aside from Communion, I think the vast majority would welcome all persons to the church’s activities.

Our responsibility to include everyone

This is the tough one. This is where the level of disagreement is higher. Can a person who has sexual urges and attractions that differ from the biblical model be a member of the church? Based on the Bible and church statements, there are two answers. For those who are not acting on their urges and attractions, the answer is yes. There is no sin in the temptation.3 For those who are sexually active outside of biblical marriage (i.e., marriage between a man and a woman), the answer is no.4

I realize that there may be persons, even in the church, who would disagree with the first answer and others who would deny the second. But if temptation is not sin (Jesus was tempted in the wilderness), then how can we exclude from membership those who, by God’s grace, do not act on the temptation? We all are tempted in some way, although perhaps not sexually.

To exclude anyone is at times difficult, especially if that person is a member of our family or a beloved friend. But the Word and church practice (at least in theory) require that those engaging sexually outside of  biblical marriage are not to hold church membership. It is true that, at times, congregations seem less concerned when a heterosexual person is improperly active in sexual relationships than if a homosexual individual is sexually active. Some seem to “tolerate” one more than the other. But to be fair, both should be treated the same way. 

So, if we do not allow such persons to hold formal membership in the church organization, how do we minister to them? Here, I want to explore an idea that I am not certain about myself. I suggest it, not as the answer but to spark critical thinking and dialogue. Would it be fruitful to pursue ways of ministering to people who are sexually active outside the biblical marriage model that do not include official membership yet create a level of belonging? Do we need spaces outside official organizational entities to minister to some groups of people? Or would it be better to create areas of belonging in the current structure that do not include official membership?5

I am the first to admit that these ideas have some potential draw-backs. The main one is the danger of stigmatizing or even ostracizing men and women. Memories of the lepers in Jesus’ day and their cry “Unclean!” remind us to be extremely careful. The tension is between embracing people in love and acceptance and incorporating them into the church family without condoning particular behaviors. The solution is not easy to find.

An illustration of how this might look is the Little Flowers Community established by Jamie and Kim Arpin-Ricci in Winnipeg, Canada.6 From the Anglican tradition, this couple felt called to develop a community that really lived the principles of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. Arpin-Ricci shares how the Little Flowers Community implements this teaching of Jesus when it comes to the question of who belongs to the community. Based on Mark 9:24, where the father asks Christ to heal his son (“Lord, I believe; help my unbelief”), and John 8, where Jesus addresses the sins of the “members,” first, and then those of the woman caught in adultery, Arpin-Ricci defines a different paradigm of belonging that is embraced in his community.

According to this paradigm, Jesus accepts persons the moment the seed of faith is planted in their heart, even though that seed has not yet borne the fruit of correct behavior. The Little Flowers Community focuses on the hearts of these participants (they are not official members of the denomination, only informal members of the community), encouraging them to live the principles of the Sermon on the Mount. This provides the “soil of belonging,” where the seed of faith can grow in the hearts and lives of those new to Christ. Only then can the “little flowers” of correct behavior bud and bloom in the lives of these growing Christians.

So for this church community, people become part of the group by accepting Jesus and a willingness to grow in the living out of the principles of Jesus’ sermon. This approach to community relationship (not to denominational membership) is different from the traditional one that requires a certain level of right behavior (practices) before one can belong to the community.

While it may not be possible or desirable to embed this model within organizations that have different requirements for belonging, it may be fruitful to explore whether there is light in creating a space for certain people groups that do not seem to currently have a place in the organizational structure. In these situations a home might be created for them (without official membership in the denomination) where they could belong to a community that seeks Jesus. The hope would be that, as they learn to love Christ and submit their lives totally to Him, the day would come when their growth in Christian lifestyle would allow official membership in the organization. Much prayer, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and biblical principles would be needed in such an endeavor.

Let them come

Of course, not everyone will accept our love, our invitation, or our attempts to include them. Like the rich young ruler, some will walk away from the community of faith as it reaches out in love. But as Christ’s followers, we are called to love people of any ilk with kindness, respect, and honor, even if some of their ideas or actions may be unacceptable to the church. And we certainly want to invite all to participate in our services and activities; we want to be as inclusive as we can. The issue of organizational membership is difficult. This third level is the most controversial. But we must find ways to include those whose sexual lifestyle is outside the teaching of Scripture, without violating biblical principle.

This can happen, by God’s grace. But it will require us to be creative, self-sacrificing, and willing to adjust how we do church in order to widen the circle of belonging. “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely” (Rev. 22:17, KJV). The mandate is clear: “ ‘As I have loved you, so you must love one another’ ” (John 13:34, NIV). And how has He loved us? “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8, NIV). We can do no less.

1  David Penno, “Personal Happiness, Self-fulfillment, and Homosexuality in the Church,” Ministry, June 2016, 25–27.

2  “Homosexuality, adultery, fornication, and other sexual temptations are not sins because they run counter to nature. They are sins because they . . . contradict our loving creator’s original design of one man and one woman in covenant relationship for a lifetime.” J. K. Jones, “The Struggles of Henri,” Christian Standard, February 5, 2015,christianstandard.com/2015/02/the-struggles-of-henri/.

3  “Scripture condemns heterosexual immorality no less than homosexual practice. . . . While homosexuality is a distortion of the Edenic ideal, ‘there is no condemnation’ for homosexually oriented persons as long as they ‘are in Christ Jesus’ (Rom 8:1) and do not harbor or act upon their orientation and propensities. The same principle applies to those who struggle with heterosexual immorality (see Matt 5:27–28; Rom 6:1–23; 8:1–4; Col 3:1–10; James 1:14–15). Even as some individuals may experience a miraculous deliverance from sinful heterosexual and homosexual urges, others may have to wrestle with such tendencies all their lives (see Gal 5:16–25). One is not culpable for these involuntary tendencies, but for acting upon them either in imagination or actual practice.” “An Understanding of the Biblical View on Homosexual Practice and Pastoral Care” (position paper, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, October 9, 2015), andrews.edu/sem/about /statements/seminary-statement-on-homosexuality -edited-10-8-15-jm-final.pdf.

4  “It is inconsistent with the Church’s understanding of scriptural teaching to admit into or maintain in membership persons practicing sexual behaviors incompatible with biblical teachings.” “Responding to Changing Cultural Attitudes Regarding Homosexual and Other Alternative Sexual Practices,” Seventh-day Adventist Church Official Statements: Guidelines, April 8, 2014, adventist.org/en /information/official-statements/guidelines/article /go/0/responding-to-changing-cultural-attitudes -regarding-homosexual-and-other-alternative -sexual-practices/.

5  Another group that might benefit from such intermediate levels of belonging would be those with severe mental incapacities. It is difficult to accept into church membership persons who cannot comprehend key doctrines or who are unable to value and practice certain important aspects of an Adventist lifestyle (Sabbath-keeping, unclean meat, smoking, alcohol, etc.).

6  Jamie Arpin-Ricci, The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis and Life in the Kingdom (Downers Grove, IL:InterVarsity Press), 2011.

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David Penno, PhD, is associate professor of Christian Ministry, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

March 2019

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