Pastoral Care, Homosexuality and the Elder

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I present this short article as a way to begin addressing this area of pastoral care.  Elders need to begin having this conversation.  I do not pretend that this is definitive.  Far from it.  But I do what to encourage members to address this area of pastoral care for the sake of the members and families of the congregation.  It is also an important part of our missional stance in this culture.   I encourage all to look at New Direction Ministries (with Wendy Gritter) to continue your journey.  

Increasingly, church communities are seeking new ways of living in community with countless people for whom the role “heterosexual, married with children” does not apply.  Gays and lesbians are included in that broad category. The standard responses were varied but by and large focused on one question: does the bible not condemn homosexuality? If any other comment was made, the comment called for us to “love the sinner, but hate the sin.” Beyond variations on these themes, there often is a deafening silence. After all, how do we talk about the pain, the struggle and the violence (physical and verbal) that has accompanied the journey of many among us? 

The silence often extends to the council room. We just know that individual stories, discussions on the biblical and theological texts, and emotional pain of members will join together for not only a lengthy conversation but a potentially divisive and painful one. Avoidance seems easier. Yet for elders to lead the congregation in ministry—reaching out to neighbours and providing guidance—such avoidance will harm community life. In this article I hope to find a way that will help elders have a conversation in council and in the community. 

Let me begin with a number of assumptions: 

  1. Every conversation I have had with a person about their journey to self identifying as being gay/ lesbian reveals a great deal of personal pain and struggle. No one goes through this just for the fun of it or because this was an adventuresome life.  Being honest with themselves was an important part of personal integrity. 
  2. I assume that answering the question “Are people born with homosexual orientation?” does not change a thing.  The person before me is who he or she is.  It is more important to listen to the person than make assumptions about DNA.  I assume than when any person struggles with self, sexual faithfulness will always be difficult no matter what their orientation. 
  3. The denomination (CRCNA) has produced a study on the biblical theological issues around the subject of homosexuality in Scripture.  At the same time, I recognize that some do not agree with these conclusions.  I assume this debate will go on for some time.  I also assume that the reasons we find some arguments more persuasive than others has more to do with our fears, anxieties, concerns, interests and loves.  Dealing with biblical discussion will need to include discussions of what lives in our heart. 
  4. Our sexualized environment means that all people hear a message that sexual gratification is a personal right.  I assume that this creates constant tension for God’s people of all orientations. For instance, “friends with benefits” indicates a cultural understanding of sexual relationships that are contrary to our understanding and yet is part of the pressure youth face. Sexual sin is found in every segment of our society.  The Christian response would certainly say that sexual gratification is never a right, always a gift.  It cannot be claimed in or out of heterosexual marriage.
  5. When the argument is made that every person has a right to be in a loving relationship (gay marriage) is made, we need to hear the deep concern is not for legal rights but a life lived in love. Unless we address the need for loving relationships in loving community that extends to all persons (married and single) in the church community, we fail to address the central need of every individual. We are, after all, created to live in love. 
  6. I assume more legal jurisdictions will implement some form of marriage rights for gay persons as a matter of human rights.
  7. I assume that the power of Word and Spirit is transformative in our life. This is important because if we are going to be guided by Jesus, we will have to pay attention to Word and Spirit not only on a denominational scale (study reports) but in small groups as we minister to each other with grace, love and the transformative power of the gospel. 
  8. I assume that every person who God places in our fellowship has gifts to share with us. 

These assumptions lead me to ask: what needs to happen in our community so that all people are partners in our common life, loved and celebrated as we seek to serve the Kingdom?

Any way of approaching this sensitive subject will require attention to at least these matters:

  1. The practice of hospitality:  Just remember that Jesus dined with those clearly identified as sinners. This does not mean he agreed with their practices.  It simply means he was willing to share meals and life with them. The Pharisees wanted to set people straight before they offered hospitality. Not Jesus. Following the pattern of Jesus, opens us up criticism but is required if we seek our neighbour’s good. If we genuinely desire to form community with those who ideas and practices differ from ours in significant ways, the practice of hospitality is a necessary first step. 
  2. The practice of listening:  Most persons who come out gay have stories to tell of abuse and discrimination.  These are painful stories that have shaped their sense of self.  Listening affirms the worth of a person.  Listening is an act of love to people who feel unloved.  More importantly, if we truly believe that this person before is a child of God placed before us by an act of God and given to us as a gift of God, it is necessary that we pay attention.  The story he or she tells or the insight she or he brings may be a way for us to deepen our vision of God and his kingdom. 
  3. The practice of listening to God together:  If we are convinced that the Word is powerful and enable to convict us of the truth, we ought to have confidence that opening the scripture and listening together will be a joint act of humble submission to God.  Humble listening has the power to transform.  If we believe that our understanding is rooted in Scripture then this should be revealed as we explore the text tighter.  When we say “let me tell you what Scripture says” our posture can quickly become arrogance which sounds more like accusation. 
  4. The practice of pointing to the way of reconciliation: The cross of Jesus and the power of the resurrection.  The journey is difficult.  Whether it a journey with sexual identity, or journey of faithfulness in marriage (divorce rates are high), the journey is/can be difficult.  Along the way we need both the grace of forgiveness and the renewal of the Spirit. 
  5. The practice of defending the rights of those treated unjustly:  While we may have differences about the practice of sex outside of heterosexual marriage, these differences do not allow for discrimination in the workplace, abuse on the streets, and painful words. 
  6. The practice of inclusion:  Inclusion is more than hospitality.  One of the shames in the life of many congregations is the failure of single adults (and sometimes married without children) to feel included in the life of the community.  Churches are often called "family- oriented."  To be inclusive means that all members become part of the push and pull of our common life.  So we need to wonder—as I do for myself—how does our common life honour and value the gifts and concerns of every person?  All too often in these conversations we reduce a person to his/her sexual orientation.  But perhaps it would be better to recognize that all people because of who they are (genetically, developmentally, family experience, etc) bring to the community gifts of grace that can make the ministry and worship of the church more vibrant.  
  7. The practice of not winning but loving: Too many times it seems we need to win the argument.  To win is to preserve my dignity and self-regard.  To lose is to be diminished.  But love is different.  To love a neighbour does not mean that we need to win every argument.
  8. The practice of rooting our identity, not in our sexual identity, but in our likeness of God (neither male nor female):  As we make something else more important or central to our identity, we struggle in our Christian walk.  We are not to become like others, we are to become like Christ. 
  9. The practice of faithfulness:  Everyone needs to know that love does not quit when the going gets tough.  If failure in life or persistent struggle means that people are abandoned, then greater harm will be done.  

It is important that we do not pick and choose which practice we want to adopt and which we seek to avoid.  Each one is important as part of an overall pastoral plan. 

The elders care within the congregation is first and foremost the practice of being the presence of Christ.  As representatives of Christ every strategy begins with an attitude that says “I am with you and for you.”  This attitude is present long before any conversation takes place.  There are at least two elements: unconditional love and preparing the room.  Besides the fact that unconditional love is the imitation of divine love, unconditional love is the door that opens difficult conversations. The unstated question at the beginning of so many pastoral conversations is “do you love me?”  Very few good and renewing conversations can take place without the ‘yes’ answer.  So elders need to ask – what are the practices and words we use to demonstrate the ‘yes.' The second element is “preparing the room.” Is the place (people) safe? Can I express my doubts?  Can I share my experience?  Clearly the words we use that are homophobic, the fear we express, and the unjust treatment that is part of the community experience do not help.  Creating a safe place requires that the elders begin to speak against all that causes so much pain among those struggling with their sexual identity. 

As leaders of the church, elders need to remind all that holiness is a call of God that includes our sexual selves.   I would suggest that sins of pornography are much more rampant in the church than any other sexual sin.  The struggles heterosexual youth have in the church are more common than any struggle related to homosexuality.  So it becomes important that the call is all embracing.  If one kind of sexual struggle is highlighted over others we are in danger of failing to deal with our sexualized culture properly. This is a highly sensitive area. Very few times have pastoral elders had a good conversation on this subject.  Perhaps we need to start the conversation.  Otherwise our call for holiness becomes onesided and sounds like condemnation.  

There is another conversation we need to engage.  The path to holiness (sanctification) can be different for different people in the church.  The perception can be that the way to full engagement in the life of the church requires a marriage certificate and children.  In other words, there is one path that is emphasized.  For many addressing issues of minority sexual identity the question is: " Where do I fit?" or "How can I belong?"  And when a person has come to accept that they are persistently oriented to be attracted to the same sex, and belonging and being a fully contributing member of the church seems to mean being married to an opposite gender spouse and having children, there can be a deep sense of hopelessness.  For all those who do not fit the demographic of married with children, there needs to be other paths for living a full and holy life in the community of faith. 

So the question is: what is the path for living a life of love, grace and service in the kingdom as one for whom heterosexual marriage is not an option?  What is the path for living a life of honesty and authenticity within the Body of Christ where one does not need to deny or suppress his/ her sexual identity? We need to wrestle with this.  Some would like to say we need to help a person change their orientation. From my reading of the literature, I am not persuaded that this is a fruitful direction even if it helps some people. Often times it can be destructive for one who feels they have tried and failed.  I think we need other answers. I am not sure what they are.  Though there seem to be few to lead the way, we may need to look for new role models among those outside the heterosexual married mainstream that can be celebrated in our communities. Pastorally, as we sit in a safe place together we need to be able to find God’s direction for the path on which that individual is called to walk faithfully in the life of the community.

Let me add one comment here:  Who we are is a gift to the church. This is not just about some particular talent a person might have and develop. Each person carries with them a way of seeing and doing that is unique to the person. Everything a person is and has experienced enters into how a person contributes to the life of a community. Being gay is not a problem to be solved but a way of seeing and being in community that can be a genuine gift for healthy community life. The journey of faith is not dictated by someone’s sexual identity but matures as one finds their deepest identity in Christ and as he or she is formed in likeness Christ.

Identity in Scripture is not limited to the very few passages that speak about homosexuality (or any passage that speaks of sex).  I am convinced that Scripture will lead us together on the path of maturity in Christ when we listen together in prayer and with the Spirit. I trust God’s Word.  Often times the best place to start is not with our disagreements, but the sources of deepest unity.  Philippians 2 will get us there.  But there are many other passages (e.g. Colossians 3).  Pastorally, this listening to God and to each other puts us in the right place.  I do not have any illusions that we will always agree.    I simply want to create the space for listening to each other and God who calls us into our new identity in Christ and leads us in the way of obedient faithfulness. 

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Thanks,  Neil, for sticking your neck out.  It is a big step from where synod left us.  We, at Eastern Ave. CRC have been trying to start this conversation over the last 2 years - ever since we prepared a new strategic plan for the church.  We included a goal stating:

Objective 3: to deepen passion for justice and sustained advocacy with regard to those living on the social margins in local and global contexts

Strategy 2: to create conversational spaces and friendship-building opportunities with those in the gay community for the sake of long term, meaningful participation in the Eastern community of faith

·         identify a leader and participants for a dialogical/support ministry

·         contact others who are involved in ministries of inclusion and learn from or partner with them as appropriate

·         create a “pilot” group/community experience to build relationships and promote experiential learning/awareness for all participants

·         enlist the help of the senior pastor and resident theologians to summarize issues-challenges-opportunities related to biblical-theological interpretation in the context of current biological and social science research

·         present an inclusion approach/strategy for council and congregational consideration

·         engage denominational systems as needed/appropriate

 

The council now is intentionally working on this goal and your article will definitely lead in the discussion. 

It is a long over-due discussion and I am heartened by people like you who are willing to get the ball rolling.

Thanks again.

Grace Joldersma

 

 

I really like the overall attitude of pastoral work and attitude in this proposal. It acknowledges some deep needs of the Church and outlines a love-first position of official work in the local body. Thanks for this.

One of the things that I'm not sure how to integrate are the statements, "What is the path for living a life of honesty and authenticity within the Body of Christ where one does not need to deny or suppress his/ her sexual identity?" and "Being gay is not a problem to be solved but a way of seeing and being in community that can be a genuine gift for healthy community life."

Honestly, I really do understand the position of meeting people where they are as they move forward in sanctification, but doesn't that assume that there is a "moving forward" towards Christlikeness? If homosexuality is condemned in scripture, I have a hard time understanding how we as officers of the Church encourage others to see homosexuality as "healthy" for a Jesus community. Doesn't repentance have to emerge somewhere? What might be your take on how that manifests in this context?

If you could elaborate on this, I would appreciate it. Thanks.

Community Builder

 

Glad to elaborate. 

First, let me assume that you agree with the position of Synod ’73.  Synod ’73 said that there was a difference between feelings of sexual attraction to the same sex and engaging in sexual practices with the same sex.  That difference is important.  If a person has feelings of same sex attraction, that would not mean a need to repent or be a problem to be solved.  In Synod ’73 a person with such feelings was urged to live a celibate life seeking Christlikeness and kingdom service.  Under this vision it is important to observe that there is nothing to condemn.  Consequently, there needs to be a path for this person to live a holy life within the context of the church. 

Second, pastorally consider the young person who happens to be struggling with issues of sexual identity or already knows that he is gay or she lesbian.  It is important that this person is not condemned because of their sexual identity.   Too often the language we use is not careful enough or clear enough and what comes through is that this child whom we are urged to lead into Christlikeness is condemned for their sexual orientation.   We try to solve the problem (being gay) and place an unnecessary burden on them to change what they cannot change.  All this while they have done no wrong. 

Third, being gay is a way of being in this world. I do not mean by that being gay involves certain sexual practice.  Any person can be celibate.   What I mean is that by birth and experience every person has a certain way of seeing and being in relationship to others.  That is a gift in the life of the church.  Even a person’s sexual orientation is part of that way of seeing and being.  It is not despite a person’s orientation but in their orientation that a person serves and relates.  Our brothers and sisters who are gay need to know that we will not suppress of deny their unique perspectives and gifts for service.  We need to see them as God’s gifts to the church.  There is a healthy way to be person who is gay and who is Christian to be involved in the church’s life. 

Fourth,  it is important to understand that many do not agree with report ’73.  Calling a person to repentance who does not believe that what they are doing anything wrong is a hard sell.  At that point we need to do more than point a person to Synod ’73.  That more will mean a willingness to submit to Scripture together and seek to understand it together.  That in itself is a journey of caring.  If we have confidence in Scripture and believe that the Spirit will lead in truth, we should not be afraid of this discussion. 

Fiifth, when I speak about a path for the holy life, I am very concerned that all too often we have failed to have wonderful models of being Christian who are not “married with kids”.  We imitate people we admire.  We always ought to imitate Christ.  We also imitate others (Paul even said to his readers ‘imitate me’).   So who will the fifteen year old gay person admire?  What path does he or she see ahead of them?   I am looking for such models because just as I like to point young women to a woman who demonstrates Christian leadership, just as I like to encourage a native person to have models for living a faithful life with Christ that honours their heritage,  I would like to show a young gay person a wonderful model of faithful and honest Christian life that acknowledges his or her sexual identity.

Sixth, there is always a time to call people to repentance.  In a pastoral context this is seldom the first word.  I would suggest that there are many times the first call to repentance needs to go to the bullies who have harmed the ones we love with hurtful words.  There are also times when we need to repent for the way we have shamed sinners (like leaders in John 8).  There are many other sins (financial and gossip) where we have been too silent though the sins were very obvious.  I would always prefer to start with an authentic pastoral relationship in which another person knows I will be faithful with him or her as we walk together in Christ.  Lets start with this generous spirit.  

Thanks for your engagement…

Neil

Michael asked some very good questions, in a very polite way.   I think however, Neil, that your response hints at a rather unfortunate attitude towards this problem.   I sense that you are taking on a language of acceptance and excuse.  So it seems to me anyway. 

For example:  you state, "If a person has feelings of same sex attraction, that would not mean a need to repent or be a problem to be solved..."   But this is naivete, isn't it?   Jesus clearly indicated that what was in our heart was as much a problem as how we lived our physical lives.   These feelings are a problem, just as any feelings of covetousness, lust, hatred.  They are a problem because they are counter to what God wants for us, and they are a problem when they do not allow people to live as God intended.  Do they lead to condemnation?  of course not, since God is a forgiving God.  Each one of us is daily aware of our need for repentance and forgiveness, and our joy in grace.   But are these feelings a problem?  Of course they are. 

These feelings are also a problem because they so often lead to an enormous motivation for justifying associated behaviours.  To deny that these feelings are a problem, is simply living in denial. 

What does it mean to acknowledge sexual identity, when the sexual identity is counter to what sexual identity actually signifies?   In this regard unclear language and intention about this issue will always lead to confusion and ambiguity.  

If there is not an acknowledgement of the problem then it is fallacious to call the approach a "generous spirit".   How do we be generous to those who do not have problem....  

I agree that we should use good judgement about calling people to repentance.  We also don't need to hammer nails into wood, when the nails are already buried in it. 

It is difficult to use the gifts of those who deny their sin, or who justify their sins, and in the same way it is difficult to use or appreciate the gifts of those who claim that homosex is not detested by God in the same way that adultery is. 

Community Builder

Back from Vacation so now comes a belated reply.  I don't make excuses but I do want to understand and be fair.  I hope I accept people as created and loved by God... loved enough so that Jesus would die for them.   And I trust that all of us want to have the same attitude as Jesus did with "sinners and taxcollectors" - even when they are Pharisees.  And so the question here is one of pastoral approach and attitude. 

Two distinctions need to be made.  

First, we need to remember the distinction that Synod made in '73.   Having a same sex attration is not same as engaging in same sex practice.   We can same the same about hetrosexuals:  having an attraction to the opposite sex is not the same as engaging in hetrosexual sex.   It is an important disticntion that we need to keep in mind in our language.  

Second, we need to be careful not to assign every sexual feeling to lust.   Just because our feelings can lead us astray does not mean that they always motivate us to sinful behaviour.  Too often in our conversations about sexual identity our condemations of same sex attraction consign those who have such feelings to the judgments of God even when they have been faithful to God in their lives.  Too often we have said to teeenagers that sexual desire is bad.  I beg too differ.  I hope that all of us can have sexual feelings and remain faithful to God.  Yes, we all have sinful desires  in our heart.   But I would be careful about making all desires sinful desires.  We have good and holy desires and feelings.   Discerning and dealing with our desires will always be part of our walk with our God.  

Finally, fact is every sunday we use the gifts of people who deny their sin and justify their sins.  It happens with enviromental sins,  greed, gossip and many other activities that undemine the well-being of community.  Of course we seek repentance and renewal.  But it does not always happen in our time. And yes, there always comes a time when some form of discipline and boundaries need to be used...  but usually we do not act in haste. 

Neil

Thanks for your reply, Neil.   I agree it is important to shepherd people, not beat them with rods (pastoral, as you say).  It is very important to keep in mind how Jesus associated with sinners, with the Samaritan woman, with the thief on the cross, etc., and also with pharisees who always tried to justify their actions.   And we should not act in haste.   Nor should we make blind rules about too much stuff.   But as you say, we do need some discipline and boundaries, even when they are ill-defined or hard to practice as absolutes. 

My main point is about the type of thinking we are susceptible to.   As you say, Synod 73 said there was a difference between sexual attraction, and sexual action.  And that is obvious. 

But, my point is just because there is a difference, doesn't mean there isn't a problem. 

Part of the problem is thinking that every attraction to the opposite gender is a sexual attraction, rather than a personality attraction.   Some men may prefer the opposite gender in terms of company, not for sexual reasons, but for their perception of personality differences.  

What is a sexual attraction for the opposite sex, anyway?   Is this ever really defined?  1. Is it just an observation that they are attractive and pretty? (which could perhaps apply to anyone of either gender).   2. or an observation that they are the opposite sex and capable of mating? 3.  or a very specific desire to engage in sexual activities with such a person?  4.  or is it just a mindless undefinable thing? 

I would say that the third option is close to lust.   But if it is just based on some physical attributes or quality which is totally separated from the reality of the person, then it is an illegitimate lust which needs to be controlled.   At least that is how I understand what Jesus said, when he said that if you lust in your heart after someone else other than your spouse, you have already committed adultery in your heart. 

Taking that into consideration, if there is a legitimate attraction (or lust maybe) for someone you are committed to and give your life for, then there is also an illegitimate desire which falls outside of that parameter.   Likely none of us is guiltless of that, but justifying that illegitimate desire seems to be the opposite of what Jesus intended.  That parameter based on scripture excludes situations of adultery and fornication and homosex.   It does not help us or anyone, to simply say that what you think or feel is not a problem.  ("As you think, so you are".) 

As far as hormone raging teenagers are concerned, it is our job not to tell them that sex is bad or sinful.   It is not.  It is beautiful, a gift from God.   But only when properly controlled and used, in a God-blessed context, based on what God intended it for.  And scripture is quite clear about that, right?  

John Z

Community Builder

Neil I think this is a very helpful post on a very difficult subject. Thanks for taking the time to write and to help lead the church.