The sexual revolution of the 1960s has morphed in recent years into a sexual evolution. The ’60s revolution brought “open sex,” changing society’s views on sex and marriage from the healthy confines of marriage where the most expressive and intimate forms of sexuality should reside to a less restricted and more open view of sexual expression outside of marriage. “Loving relationship” became the litmus rather than God’s design or intent for sexual expression. The historic and biblical approach to appropriate, God-ordained, societally healthy, marriage-affirming sexuality has been maligned for more than 60 years, being redefined in the marketplace, school curriculum, media and society at large.
More recently, the shift has been evolutionary. Sexuality is no longer just a matter of inside or outside of marriage. Sexuality has little societal restriction, and marriage has been redefined in its entirety. Acceptable sexual expression in society during the sexual revolution was generally assumed to be heterosexual and between consenting adults, even if outside of marriage.
Now marriage has had an extreme makeover by the courts and is diminished by many. Sexual expression during the sexual revolution was generally viewed as moral and a matter of choice. The evolution of sexuality in more recent years has seen moral language removed altogether from virtually all sexual expression — heterosexual, homosexual, transgender and other expressions — making sexual behavior and orientation simply matters of personal preference, human right or genetic predisposition. What was once broadly accepted as moral is now a choice, a human right and genetic. Federal and state governments have exacerbated the situation by de-emphasizing the morality of sexuality and making it a matter of human rights, codifying the primary premise of this evolution and reinforcing its conclusions.
Virtually everyone living in 21st century North America is familiar not only with the changing mores regarding human sexuality but also the laws protecting what the Bible and church history considers unhealthy for marriage and society. Now, many people inside and outside the church have accepted these new norms without question. Churches minister in this context. Members and attendees in many congregations struggle with unchecked sexual behaviors, sexual dysphoria, gender confusion and LGBT practice. This makes the conversation understandably sensitive. In a recent informal poll in one congregation, more than 75 percent of the hands went up when asked how many struggled in these areas or have family members or co-workers who do.
Having said all of that about society in general, we must clearly reaffirm that the Bible and the historic wisdom of the church have not changed. Some denominations and independent churches have changed their position or theology in recent years. Sadly the sexual revolution is hardly a topic in light of the evolution. But both must be addressed from Scripture. Regardless of common sexual practice in society (whether of the revolutionary or evolutionary type), God still has a design for sexual expression. And, sexual expression has emotional, physical, marital and societal consequences for good or bad. Rather than redefining sexuality on the one hand or Christianity on the other to fit culture, it is still best to address sexuality from the light of Scripture and the most consistent wisdom of the church throughout its history. The result will lead us to minister redemptively from a place of truth and grace while preserving our understanding of sin, holiness and God’s saving plan and His plan for marriage.
Fidelity to a biblical hermeneutic leads to a higher view of scriptural authority. But, tailored hermeneutics lead to a lower view of scriptural authority. The latter describes the trajectory of many denominations in America. Forsaking sound exegesis in one area compromises exegetical integrity in all other matters addressed in Scripture. When that happens, it results in not only a diminished view of scriptural authority but a modification of God’s relationship with humanity and His intention for human intimacy. Sexuality has become a hermeneutical watershed for pastors, churches and denominations. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was convinced that the common people’s understanding of Scripture is generally the most reliable since their ability to contort it is less than those with substantial skill. The Scriptures are consistent and clear regarding gender relationships as they relate to sexuality. Exegesis lands most there.
The position of the Free Methodist Church on God’s fundamental design for sexual expression is found in the church’s statements in its governing document, the “Book of Discipline.” In it, the church states, “Sexual intimacy is a gift from God for marital union.” It further explains, “When expressed within marriage, sexual intimacy is a great blessing and source of fulfillment. The sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman is to be protected against all manner of immoral conduct.” It goes on to include premarital, extramarital (adultery) and homosexual intimacy more specifically as sinful conduct as so addressed repeatedly in the Scriptures — complete with references. Many clear and expansive works on this matter can be found on the Free Methodist website (fmcusa.org).
What then are the implications for Free Methodist pastors and churches? How do we minister, preach the good news and serve those impacted by these lifestyle choices? What does this mean for our day-to-day ministry?
First, it reminds us that we live in societies with ever-changing norms. Though the church should not change its theology, it must change the manner in which it ministers. We can no longer afford to give peripheral attention to sexuality in our teaching. It must be vigorously taught. It is conspicuously part of school curriculum. It inordinately saturates television and the Internet. It is experienced by all ages with “don’t ask, don’t tell” immunity. We are not living in an “anything goes” culture as much as an “everything should be considered normal” culture. Ministry then should give commensurate attention to it. Cultural conviction might not be strong or even exist when it comes to sexuality, so teaching and group instruction must be more robust, frequent, biblically based, culturally aware and sensitive.
The church at its best has always sought to honor Christ and His Word, not to mirror changing societal mores. We are to be Christocentric, mirroring Christ’s love and truth to a fallen world. We are to be “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) in meaningful yet grace-filled ways in our ministries. The anchor of truth is the truth of Jesus Christ, expressed by the love from His Spirit. One of the gravest errors in teaching is to align Christian conviction as closely as possible with accepted cultural norms. While we desire to be sensitive and helpful, we must acknowledge that most of the world has for centuries stood opposed to the dominant cultural morals and practices in this and other areas. Christianity in the West has not faced the need to be countercultural in many areas until now in this one.
Second, gender confusion is exacerbated in a society that made sexuality core to human identity. It was never intended to be. We were created in the image of God. That essential core has been marred by sin. The core is not sexual orientation or any other behavior. Sexuality is part of life, not the whole or essence of it.
“Orientation” and “identity” are commonly attached to sexuality, which, on a fundamental level, is flawed. It misplaces the role of sexuality in defining the person. Orientation and identity terminology are not used for any other behavior. Why this one? Ministry to people trapped by sin, any sin, must remind all persons that they are created in the image of God yet bent toward sin. We understand that Christ redeems and reverses the fall of humanity. He unravels our twisting toward sin and self. Our identity is perfected in Christ and cannot be found in our sexuality, not even in our most holy and righteous expression of sex. Sexuality will never perfectly define who we are as sinners or saints. To make sexuality the center of identity misses its part in human relationship and the centrality of our relationship with God.
Third, human orientation always angles toward sin and self-fulfillment while opposing God and His correction. Unrestrained impulse gratification is never good. In virtually all areas of life (including sexual expression), impulse control is a key ingredient of mental, emotional and spiritual health. Sexual orientation does not require expression though many seem to think there is no other way. The Bible clearly speaks of an orientation toward sin that we all possess as a result of the fall. Certain sins tempt some more than others. We should not conclude that yielding to temptation or ignoring it altogether are our best options. Neither should we assume that God does not offer forgiveness, healing and freedom from bondage to sin.
Concluding that sexuality is benign choice or genetic predisposition renders impulse control as unnecessary. When sex becomes amoral, discipline ceases to exist. Discipleship always leads us on a path toward how we might best live. It will also lead us to identify impediments and learn where and when resistance and restraint must be exercised. Improper sexual behaviors, like all other matters with which they are lumped that impede our progress, will stand in the way of discipleship and growth.
Fourth, civil law does not form spiritual truth or define it. That is not the role of government. Though we respect the laws of the land, we simply cannot violate the natural law or divine law that carries with it moral, spiritual and eternal consequences because laws are formed. Though laws might sanction a set of behaviors, the church must still teach what it knows about God’s plan and will. We pray that His “kingdom come and will be done.” It is best for our teaching to lean in the direction of what we know about His will in human relationships. We respect the state in areas where it makes laws that protect us. But we should not expect the government to create truth or redefine it for us. As an example, divorce became legal and easily accessible many years ago in the United States. Many have regrettably experienced the brokenness of a fractured marriage and have received God’s healing and grace. The church still does not and should not advocate divorce as God’s design simply because it is legal and easily obtained. Marriage has similarly been redefined by courts. But it has not been redefined by the church or Bible. Homosexual marriage, cohabitation, domestic partnerships and other non-monogamous marriage arrangements are all outside of God’s original design for marriage. People may find healing and grace, but we should not endorse practices we know to be harmful. Instead, we teach truth and minister grace in love.
Grace + Truth
God’s grace applies to broken sexuality as it does in every other area of sin. Sexual sins are neither unforgivable nor destructive to a point beyond God’s redemptive hand. It would be a travesty to believe that no grace is required because no sin exists with certain sexual practice. It would similarly be misleading to believe that no breach in relationship with God is at stake in this or any other area where the biblical record clearly identifies behaviors as sinful. Equally devastating would be to believe that these are sins from which it is impossible to recover or find forgiveness. We must minister truth and grace.
Truth requires teaching. Some pastors and churches may feel unqualified to teach on such a highly charged topic, but courageous biblical instruction is important. Silence will only allow secular cultural mores to deeply embed themselves in the church. Teaching the biblical understanding of sin and the hope of salvation is essential for effective ministry.
Grace requires loving. It creates a welcoming environment allowing the Holy Spirit to do His work of conviction, comfort, revelation and empowerment. Grace identifies human value and offers love and respect. Grace and truth together require us to live out and communicate what wholeness and holiness in Christ look like and to lovingly make disciples who live and love in holiness.
So what does this mean for day-to-day ministry? If the above is true, it will affect the way in which our churches minister and organize themselves. We must actively share the good news of salvation in Christ with all people, welcoming them into our fellowship, sharing the love of Christ regardless of lifestyle or
entrapments. We believe that God wants none to perish but all to come to repentance and to find life in Christ. Regardless of how people sexually identify, they should find love, grace and truth in Free Methodist churches.
We also must not wait for changes of behavior to occur before we invite people to enter into a relationship with Christ and begin their journey of faith. We will not make behavior-based conditions for people to make themselves “ready” to hear the gospel of Christ. People must choose Christ over whatever sins control them. Let the Holy Spirit do His work without preconditions. We should never exclude people on the basis of lifestyle. But we must not assume that we must
embrace all lifestyles. If we exclude people with problems, most of society would be unwelcomed. No preconditions should exist for coming to church or Christ.
We also must commit to disciple all people who receive the grace of God so they may understand His Word and path toward wholeness. We will disciple all people who receive Christ to become mature servants of Christ. For those trapped in any sin (sex-based, pride, lying, gossip, etc.), we know that struggles with “besetting sins” may continue to exist after coming to Him. We don’t condone those behaviors, but we remain committed to faithful relationship and ongoing discipleship for all who are willing to seek forgiveness and commit to grow in Christ. We will offer guidance and help to those who seek to be obedient to God and His commandments.
We also must give clear biblical teaching on human sexuality and God’s intended role for sex in the human experience. Premarital and homosexual intimacy cannot be seen as part of God’s intended role for human sexual expression, regardless of a person’s attraction or tendencies. Christians must be thoroughly informed and equipped to understand and/or teach on sexuality and should seek guidance from their pastor, church or denominational leaders to assist them in teaching biblical wisdom on these matters.
Because homosexuality is not God’s original design for sexual intimacy, we cannot accord same-sex relationships the status the church holds for God’s intended design for heterosexual marriage and intimacy. We will not perform same-sex unions or marriages, which are contrary to our understanding of Scripture and denominational commitments. That should not in any way restrict us from inviting, discipling and baptizing any person who comes to Christ, receives forgiveness from sin and seeks to live a new life in holiness and wholeness. Churches who so minister will find the way to help people discover their true identity in Christ. They will help each person with an orientation toward sin to have a new orientation, which is bent to please God.
BISHOP MATTHEW THOMAS has been an active part of the Free Methodist Church since 1979. His ministry roles have included serving as a pastor, church planter, missionary and superintendent.