This week the media have been carrying the report of an anti-gay pastor who has been “outed” as a closet homosexual. A conservative Lutheran, the minister had been vocal in his opposition to the ELCA’s decision to ordain openly homosexual ministers. He is now being held up to public shame as a person who experiences same-sex attractions.
According to the publishers of a homosexually-oriented magazine, this pastor has been attending a twelve-step program for men who are trying to live celibate lives while experiencing homosexual attractions. The publishers commissioned a reporter to lie his way into the group. The magazine then published several admissions that the pastor is supposed to have made while under what he imagined to be the confidentiality of the program.
The pastor is now being denounced as a hypocrite both by those who are pro-homosexuality and those who are anti-Christianity. His ministry is in jeopardy. Most people seem to think that he is getting exactly what he deserves.
As of this writing, no one has alleged that the pastor ever actually had a sexual relationship with another man. No one has documented an inconsistency between the man’s profession and his conduct. So far, the case is very different from that of Ted Haggard, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals who stepped down from his post after being accused of a relationship with a homosexual prostitute.
The purpose of this essay is not to determine the guilt or innocence of the pastor in question. Indeed, the essay will name neither the accused pastor nor the publication that has accused him. The episode does, however, contain certain lessons that Christians need to learn.
Those lessons begin with an acknowledgment that the problem of homosexuality cannot simply be ignored. A generation ago, this conduct was considered such a shameful perversion that it was barely mentioned in public. On the rare occasions that churches actually had to confront homosexuals, such persons were rapidly and summarily excluded. The notion of a ministry to and for homosexuals was unthinkable.
The situation is now exactly the opposite. Within the “official” culture of our civilization, homosexuality is no longer viewed as a perversion, a disease, or even an abnormality. It is simply thought of as another way of doing sex, and sexual liberty has become the most inalienable right. Any opposition to homosexuality is viewed as almost intolerable bigotry.
This change in perspective is going to affect churches for the foreseeable future. More of the people in our civilization will have at least experimented with homosexuality. More of the people in our churches will struggle with homosexuality. We are long overdue for a conversation about how we intend to minister to them.
As we conduct that conversation, one distinction needs to be made clearly. Same-sex attraction is a different matter from homosexuality. Being tempted with the sin and being a sinner are two different things.
The same is true of opposite-sex attractions, of course. Married people may find themselves being drawn to individuals other than their spouses. Such temptations are not in themselves necessarily lustful, nor are they necessarily sinful. The temptations become sin when they are harbored and acted upon.
It is possible for a person with opposite-sex attractions to live a life of chastity in mind and in body. By the same token, it is possible for a person with same-sex attractions to live a life of chastity. It is as wrong to call such a person a homosexual as it is to call a faithfully married man an adulterer.
Homosexuality is not simply a matter of desires but of obsessions and actions. Nor is homosexuality a matter of identity. Virtually everybody experiences sexual desires of some sort. Those desires, however, do not define us. Our identity consists in our relationship to God. If we are God’s children and we are in Christ, then our conduct (including the conduct in which we engage in our own inner world) needs to be brought into line with our identity.
Homosexuality is not who a person is, but what a person does. Someone who chooses not to engage in the conduct is not a homosexual. Someone who chooses to stop engaging in the conduct is no longer a homosexual. It was possible for Paul, discussing homosexuality among other sins, to say, “such were some of you” (1 Cor 6:11) Whatever their desires, these people were now washed, sanctified, and justified by Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit.
A word needs to be said about hypocrisy. One does not become a hypocrite by denouncing what one desires. We all have the experience of desiring what we know is wrong. Labeling a thing wrong when we desire it is not hypocritical. Indeed, it is an act of courage.
We do not even become hypocrites when we indulge in vices that we know and profess to be wrong. Unless someone claims to have achieved sinless perfection, we must all admit that we sometimes actually do what we know to be wrong. This admission is not a confession of hypocrisy, however, but of akrasia [editor’s note: “lack of self control,” 1 Cor. 7:5]. When we sin we are weak, but we are not necessarily hypocrites.
Hypocrisy occurs when we knowingly label good to be evil or evil to be good. To be a hypocrite is to pretend to believe one thing when we actually believe another. Hypocrisy means attempting to excuse our conduct on the basis of a principle that we ourselves do not really hold.
So what about the pastor with whom this discussion began? Should such a person be barred from ministry? Should he be expelled from the church?
My response is that same-sex attractions by themselves are no disqualification from church membership. They are no disqualification from church office. They should be no disqualification from the friendship of God’s people. In fact, same-sex attractions by themselves should not even hinder Christians from entering the marriage covenant and bearing children.
Attractions are things to be managed. They can be rejected, or they can be dwelt upon and acted upon. They can be learned and unlearned. Those who reject them and seek to unlearn them are not to be judged as if they had acted upon them.
Helping Christians learn how to respond to wrong and even perverse inclinations is an important part of discipleship. Given the increasingly positive treatment of homosexuality in our civilization, this is an aspect of discipleship that churches no longer can afford to ignore. We cannot insulate our youth entirely from the influences of our culture. More of our young people are going to find that they experience same-sex attractions.
Also, more of the people we reach will have been touched by homosexual desires and practices. When they become Christians, they will have to deal with the attitudes and activities of their past. So will we. This, too, is an aspect of ministry that churches no longer can afford to ignore.
Henry Vaughan (1621-1695)
Death and darkness, get you packing:
Nothing now to man is lacking.
All your triumphs now are ended,
And what Adam marred is mended.
Graves are beds now for the weary;
Death a nap, to wake more merry;
Youth now, full of pious duty,
Seeks in thee for perfect beauty;
The weak and aged, tired with length
Of days, from thee look for new strength;
And infants with thy pangs contest,
As pleasant as if with the breast.
Then unto him who thus hath thrown
Even to contempt thy kingdom down,
And by his blood did us advance
Unto his own inheritance—
To him be glory, power, praise,
From this unto the last of days!
This essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.