A couple of years ago I was teaching a Bible study series for the high school youth group of my church on topics that the church tends to avoid. The series lead off with a look at homosexuality. The focus of the lesson was not so much a demonstration of the sinfulness of homosexuality–though that was covered–rather our time was to have rested more on how we as the church ought to respond to those we know and care about who identify as homosexual.

I began by attempting to hook the students into the topic by getting them to reflect on their immediate, visceral reactions to homosexuality. I asked the students to share the first thing that came to their minds when I said “homosexual.” Just a couple of responses into the sharing, a young man who had been coming fairly regularly with some friends who were members of the church spoke up. “Me,” he said.

You can image how silent that room was. Now, I am not sure if everyone was all that surprised that he was gay, but we were almost to a person unsure of how to react. There I was, the DCE of this church, planning to teach a lesson on homosexuality, now faced with an individual who just came out to the group. What was I to do? How was I to respond on behalf of the church?

Being a called worker I know well how my speech and actions can convey unintended lessons. Yet all of us as a part of Christ’s church here on earth have a level or responsibility in how we respond. Despite claims to the contrary, the Bible is fairly clear on the subject of the sinfulness of homosexuality. Not so long ago, Phil Robertson, of Duck Dynasty fame, stirred controversy with his paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

While there are scholarly attempts to argue otherwise, the translators working on the ESV translation above mince no words in rendering the phrase “nor men who practice homosexuality.” But notice the larger context of the passage. Notice that this is part of a list of sins and not one intended to be singled out from among many others. Paul begins chapter 6 of 1 Corinthians calling us as followers of Christ to distinguish ourselves from the sinfulness of those around us by refraining from bringing
lawsuits against one another. Paul continues after these verses to discuss further our call to flee from sexual immorality.

To this call to distinguish ourselves from the culture around us, I would point us to another passage that is not always handled completely. In Ephesians 4:15, we are called to seek unity as the Body of Christ in part by speaking the truth in love. Now, while the context of this passage is focused on our fellow believers, I do believe that the very life of Christ demonstrates the applicability of it beyond the faithful. Remember Christ was criticized for spending time with as well as eating with sinners (see Mark 2:13-17 for example). In John 8, Jesus both avoids a trap set by the scribes and Pharisees and prevents a woman caught in adultery from being put to death by stoning. But notice what two key things are going on here. First, Jesus applies the law to those who would condemn her from her clear violation of the law. Second, Jesus applies grace first and then offers the corrective guide of the law to the woman.

As the apostle Peter notes in 1 Peter 3:13-17, we are called to speak the truth in love. There are two things here that are of vital importance. First we are called to speak the truth. We thus cannot avoid being clear in calling homosexuality sinful. We in the church need to be especially careful in how we handle both God’s Law and the Gospel of Christ. The proper application of each can be a blessing and a true act of love. We demonstrate God’s love when we present the law clearly and unapologetically. There is not love offered by wishing away unpopular passages of Scripture that condemn homosexual behavior. God knows His creation and has established His laws in order to guide us in our lives within that creation. In addition to health concerns related to sexually transmitted diseases, the homosexual lifestyle adds to the further breakdown of the family. Married heterosexual couples have been shown to be generally happier, which translates to a longer and healthier life. We do not show love when we avoid speaking the truth.

The second factor at work is Peter’s call for our speaking to be done from a posture of love. Holding a sign on a street corner does not speak love. By establishing prior relationships, we earn the trust of those we are called by God to love in His truth. We need then to offer the Gospel as well as the Law to those struggling to understand who they are in Christ and in their sexual identity.

Now we are not able to know the heart the way Jesus does. This disadvantage means that we will make a good many mistakes. But we are called by Christ to both speak the truth and to do so in love, but to do so in a way that takes into account the standing that one has before God. We cannot begin by presenting the law to those who do not know Christ nor respect His law outside of the context of personal relationships. We could, but the continued culture war over “gay marriage” illustrates how futile that approach is.

I believe that we ought instead, on a one-on-one basis, to begin in love and the truths related to that love. We are all sinners in need of a Savior. The perception of Christians is that we view others as sinners, more in the style of the New Testament Pharisee. This perception has built up in our culture as far too many in the church respond to the topic of homosexuality, first with condemnation and then weakly with attempts to convey our mutual sinfulness. If we are to have any hope in turning that trend and gaining a hearing for why the homosexual lifestyle, rightly, is outside of the design of God for our sexual expression, we need instead to lead with some attempts at love and building up of relational connections. For it is through those connections that we gain the space in which to then present God’s design for our sexuality.

What does that look like? Well back to the story I began with. When the young man responded to my question that his response to homosexual was, “Me,” I knew that I would gain no hearing for the balance of the lesson I had planned to teach if I jumped to Leviticus 18 and 20. Rather, I began by responding with an affirmation. I thanked this young man for his courage and trust in us. He was taking a risk. We may have rejected him. He may well have expected that we would. This was a young man who was not a Christian. In fact, on another occasion he explained that he was an atheist and wanted to make sure that it was alright that he was there so often for youth group. He enjoyed my teaching, he just was not sure if he could believe in God. What is interesting is that this came in a later conversation, months following his coming out to the group.

I did continue with my lesson. The focus remained on how we are to love all sinners, even homosexual sinners. While I did walk through a few Scripture passages demonstrating that homosexuality is indeed sinful, this had not been nor did it become the primary focus of our time together.

There were times during the lesson that this young man was visibly uncomfortable. He was hearing things he was not sure he wanted to. He was hearing things that challenged his understanding of his very identity. Yet he was also seeing love despite the cutting challenges of God’s law.

Perhaps by building relationships like Christ did with sinners, we can gain a hearing with them to present God’s design for His creation once they already trust that our motives are based on love and not a desire to judge others. Once we are trusted, our call to go and sin no more may well have a far greater impact. We have our work cut out for us. The public perception crafted manipulatively by the media is working against us. But we need to find ways to offer an alternative vision of the true love of the church. Perhaps as society sees us truly caring for individuals in the gay community, the lie that believing that homosexuality is sinful is equivalent to homophobia or hate will be shown for what it is–a lie of the evil one, set up to deceive and drive those in most need of a savior way from those bringing news of that Savior to a people in need.