A pastor friend shared a revealing experience he had while presenting to a “getting to know you” class at church. In a room of about 20 to 30 prospective members, one couple stood out from the crowd. Sadly, there were others in the room who were unable to get past their prejudice and ended up running off this openly gay couple merely looking for a place to belong.
This experience seems to support the assumption held by many millennials that the church as a whole hates and mistreats the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community. As someone who feels called as a church planting pastor, I’m concerned that this stigma not only threatens our witness to this community but possibly an entire generation standing by watching with a critical eye.
Of course, the Bible addresses the issue of homosexual sin, but the Bible also has plenty to say about heterosexual sin, and that hasn’t stopped us from ministering to those struggling with lust, fornication or adultery. The question of sinfulness is not the issue. The real issue comes down to how well we are loving others.
Our Jesus, the same Jesus who dined with sinners and tax collectors (Matthew 9:9–13), the same Jesus who allowed a sinful woman to bathe His feet with her tears (Luke 7:36–50) and defended a woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:3–12), this Jesus demonstrated a pattern of caring for sinners rather than condemning them (John 3:17). The sinners of His day went to great lengths to follow Him and hear His message while we, His representatives, have done an effective job of alienating them. This should not be so.
How then do we reach the people who are part of this community and connect them to the body of Christ? What are we doing well? What are we doing poorly? What do we need to change? I’d like to suggest two things we can do to make LGBT people receive appropriate shepherding care from the pastoral staff at our churches and stand a fighting chance of being embraced by their respective congregations.
The first suggestion has to do with education and training. If we’re ever going to reach this community, and not push away an entire generation of sympathizers, we must lift the veil of bigotry and hatred that is pervasive across all levels of the church. We should offer clear teaching on the nature of sin and temptation, the consequences thereof and a humble acceptance of our own frailty and vulnerability as we do so.
I’ve often heard it said that we should “love the sinner but hate the sin” or “hate the sin but not the sinner.” No, Jesus didn’t say this. You won’t find this one in Scripture. My understanding is that it was St. Augustine who originally penned the words cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum, which translates roughly to “with love for mankind and hatred of sins.” These words have been popularized and refashioned by various cultures over the centuries and echoed by many a well-meaning Christian today. While it may sound like a great idea, it’s rare to see this one carried out in practice with much success. To the contrary, I think it’s more common to see Christians today hating sin and sinners alike.
So I’ve come to one simple conclusion. We’re called to love. We’re called to love one another. We’re called to love our neighbors and even love our enemies (Matthew 22:36–40). Perhaps if we spent less time and energy hating the sin of others and more time hating our own sin, it would come more naturally to love others who struggle with sin (Galatians 5:13–15). How about we just love people, period. Let’s agree to leave the business of judging sin up to God, the only just judge, and instead focus our energy and resources on loving others into fellowship with Him and His people. Maybe we could get really crazy and refashion St. Augustine’s quote yet again to “loving one another and overcoming sin together.”
If we really adopt this focus of loving others, one evidence will be a measurable shift toward a zero tolerance for derogatory comments, name-calling or “jokes” — not unlike the way we would treat conversation related to racial minorities or women. And in place of these attitudes, a clear teaching on how to “love thy neighbor” in practical ways – especially those who are different from us and may even make us feel uncomfortable. I believe this is where we start – attitudes and words – but it’s not enough.
The other measurable shift will be evidenced by our actions. And this is the second responsibility that I believe falls on us as the church in responding to and reaching the LGBT community. Truly, faith without works is dead, and we as a church need to put some legwork behind our convictions (James 2:14–26). If we say we love others, that’s great, but where is that love being demonstrated by our actions?
Are we effectively creating and launching ministries aimed at reaching out to this community as well as caring for those who choose to visit our churches? Why not set up a water and snack station along the road during a gay pride march and proudly wave signs brandishing “God loves gays too,” offering not only water and refreshments but hugs and prayers of encouragement and reconciliation. Why not send teams to LGBT offices located on the campuses of our local public universities and offer to support them at their next event, pray for them and even invite them to church? Why not look for an opportunity to serve and love this community – us going out to them?
As far as caring for them, it’s on us to create environments that make them feel welcome and accepted. We need to be prepared to invite them to our Bible studies, home groups, Super Bowl parties and relationship classes. How would we respond to an invitation to visit their homes? We need to be prepared to share openly our own weaknesses and struggles with sin and with vulnerability without ever pointing the finger. Finally, we need to be prepared to offer objective counseling and recovery in our churches that could possibly serve as a lifeline for someone struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction.
This article is not about relevance – far from it. What I hear God calling us to is relationship. It is my conviction that we can accomplish all of this without compromising our beliefs or watering down the truth of God’s Word. It’s a delicate balance to be sure, but I’m convinced we can do it. The next time a gay couple considers attending our church, my hope and prayer is that we’ll be ready to welcome them in with open arms! Here’s to building bridges rather than walls. May the Lord richly bless you as you minister in your city.
Brett Masters is the pastor and executive director of the Dream Center of Lake Elsinore, California. He led Celebrate Recovery at Lamb’s Fellowship Lake Elsinore for seven years.
- How would members of your congregation react to a gay couple attending church services?
- Do you know Christians who condemn some sins but ignore others?