How one pastor tackles questions about same-sex relationships
It was my fifth week as lead pastor at The Meeting Place, Winnipeg. Every face was a new face, every story a new story. A young man named Paul* approached me after the Sunday service, beaming, “Pastor John, I got engaged yesterday evening! Would you officiate our wedding?”
After congratulating him, he continued, “I want you to meet my fiancé. He’s in town for the weekend.” I guess you could say I was surprised.
Serving in a downtown church, I find that questions about sexuality are at the core of many pastoral care and theological discussions. And more than a few of those discussions revolve around same-sex questions.
The following are just a few comments and questions I’ve encountered from people seeking to follow Jesus and engage the reality of homosexuality. Their experiences are often isolating and lonely; their desire for meaningful conversation is real and urgent.
• My son is getting married to his male partner. I love my son and his fiancé is a great guy. But I don’t approve. Should I go to the wedding?
• Can I be gay and still be a Christian?
• I’m a surrogate mother for a gay couple. The three of us would like to participate in parent/child dedication together. What do we have to do?
• I’m lesbian. I want to start a family with my partner and I want this church to be my home. If it becomes known, will I (and my kids) still be welcomed and accepted?
• I used to be involved in the gay lifestyle. I’m HIV-positive and my health is deteriorating, I’m scared. Could you anoint me with oil and pray for me?
• My son just told me he’s been receiving hormone therapy in preparation for a sex change. I’m so ashamed. What do I say to my son? What will people think about me as a parent?
• My dad is gay. I don’t really like his partner, but they’re getting married and he has asked me to stand up for him. I love my dad. What do I say at his wedding when I propose a toast to the groom?
• My friends know I’m homosexual. I’m celibate but they all think I’m having sex with other guys. It’s frustrating to deal with their hurtful assumptions. Ironically, they don’t seem to have a problem with other Christian friends who aren’t married but living together.
• I’ve known I was gay from the time I was a kid – I’m only attracted to other men. But I want to be a dad. I want to raise a family. What should I do? I have close friends who are women and some would like to date me. I’m so conflicted.
I’ve stopped coming to this church because of its position on homosexuality. Many of my friends are gay and, based on your statement of faith, wouldn’t be welcome here.
Shaping our response
How can we best engage these dilemmas faced by our friends, neighbours, and family members? The following two questions can serve as filters and help shape the way we respond.
1. Who am I speaking with? Jesus never approached people in the same way – he had different types of conversations with different types of people. Jesus initiated missional conversations with a Samaritan woman (John 4) and a tax cheat (Luke 19); he called out the ethics of money changers (Matthew 21:12) and the hypocrisy of Pharisees (Matthew 23:13); and he challenged his disciples to live out a rigorous community ethic (John 17).
When I consider who I’m speaking with, I ask: Is this a missional conversation with a spiritually seeking person? Is it a conversation about biblical or confessional faithfulness? Is it about relationship and community? When we participate in a conversation with someone, it’s critical to respect that person’s individual journey and spiritual commitments.
2. With what voice will I speak and what words will I offer? Will it be the voice and words of justice, grace, or mercy? How will I communicate biblical truths and offer compassion?
Jesus, of course, struck the perfect balance when choosing his voice and words. Often, it was his questions – rather than his answers – that connected God’s truth with people’s circumstances.
Sadly, I often fail to find the best questions or the right balance. Each of us seems to have a God-given “default setting” when it comes to choosing our voice. But our default settings don’t relieve us of the responsibility to consciously choose how and what we say. If our tendency is to offer compassion, are there times we should be more directive in our response? If we’re inclined to seek justice, are there times we should exercise more mercy?
They will know we are Christians by our love
There are several challenges – and past mistakes – the church must face as we dialogue with people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) community. These challenges and mistakes can taint the conversation and make it difficult for us to truly love our brothers and sisters. Here are some of my observations:
Many followers of Jesus – both heterosexual and homosexual – engage in sexual behaviours that aren’t subordinate to Christ. Frankly, I’m more concerned about out-of-control heterosexual behaviours among apparently devoted followers of Christ than homosexual behaviours of spiritually seeking people.
Pornography and premarital sex are commonplace. Many couples take their relationship for a “test drive” by living together before they consider marriage. And some live together without ever having a serious conversation about marriage (except to say they “aren’t interested”). Perhaps we need to address heterosexual ethics more urgently than questions about homosexuality.
Jesus set a high bar for sexual conduct and relationship fidelity. In Scripture, sex is a spiritual act, linked to a covenant relationship with another person. It’s meant to be profoundly unselfish. However, many of our sexual experiences disregard or discard the covenantal nature of sex. We’ve made it all about self-fulfillment and self-expression. Sex has become a god we worship and to which we’re enslaved.
“Love the sinner; hate the sin.” Christians routinely toss around this classic line. Although the phrase contains truth, it’s not what many gay or lesbian people experience. The discussion in the church tends to objectify our homosexual brothers and sisters, making honest conversation unsafe. Since we use sexual orientation to construct personal identity, “love the sinner; hate the sin” is often experienced as “hate the person because of who they are.”
In some parts of the evangelical community, Christians construct a hierarchy of sinful behaviour. Homosexuality has become the “unforgivable sin,” just as divorce/remarriage and teenage pregnancy were unforgivable sins a few decades ago. This hierarchy can lead to social exclusion and a collection of second-class citizens and outcasts. So, what can we learn from the past about being loving, grace-giving, restorative Christian communities?
Heterosexual people often implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) express an air of superiority toward homosexual people, as if to say “your sin is worse than mine.” Yet Scripture says that sin is sin; it separates us from God and each other.
As a church, we’ve failed to create a powerful experience of community for those who are single. We marginalize unmarried people who desire healthy intimacy and experiences of significance within our congregations. We devalue celibacy and abstinence as a valid choice for heterosexual or homosexual singles.
We are all sexual beings. Any conversation about human sexuality is personal. We’re also spiritual beings, so every conversation about spiritual things is personal. Are we addressing same-sex issues from this personal perspective? Are we mindful who we’re talking with? Are we willing to engage in challenging discussions? Are we being honest about our own shortcomings and biases? Are we good listeners? Are we allowing Jesus and his good news to permeate all our conversations?
The first time I was asked to officiate a wedding for a same-sex couple I was surprised. What followed was months of remarkable conversations with Paul. He was a follower of Christ, his partner wasn’t. Their relationship was complicated by addiction and manipulative behaviours. In the end, Paul called off the wedding. But it doesn’t make his original question any less challenging.
Canadian culture and law clearly affirm same-sex marriage. If the Mennonite Brethren church and its pastors are culturally engaged and missionally connected, we should expect that married, same-sex couples will find and follow Jesus, and that there will be opportunities to disciple them. We should expect conversations with people who’ve made up their minds about sexual orientation, but haven’t yet made up their minds about Jesus. And we should expect to be invited to the wedding sooner than later.
*not his real name