We Need to Focus on Pastoral Care - Part 5
by Brandon Haan
This is the fifth in a series of articles about pastoral care for LGBTQ+ people. Read Part 4
A New Group
In the wake of Synod 2022, my head still spinning from the potential implications of Synod’s decisions, I joined a new peer group.
Put together by The Foundry, a parachurch organization focused on forming Christian leaders, the group was designed for pastors who hold a traditional Biblical and theological position on human sexuality (which I do), but who wanted to see themselves and their churches become more inclusive, hospitable, and pastoral towards LGBTQ+ people (which I also do).
Meeting monthly, our time together (September 2022 to April 2023) consisted of reading four books and discussing them. And, while everything we read and talked about was helpful, there was one book in particular (the first one we read, actually) that especially stood out to me: Greg Johnson’s timely 2021 book, Still Time to Care.
Still Time to Care
Still Time to Care is a brilliant book by a winsome, witty, celibate gay Christian pastor working to live out his life in service to God.
Two parts history, one part constructive critique, one part Biblical interpretation, all parts thoughtful reflection, the book chronicles the Christian community’s shift from a paradigm of care for LGBTQ+ people (which Johnson looks back on favorably) to a paradigm of cure (which Johnson says unhelpfully held out orientation change as the main hope for LGBTQ+ Christians; spoiler alert: Johnson thinks our main hope as Christians should instead be Jesus Christ).
There’s a lot I like about Johnson’s book: it’s personal, conversational, and warm in its tone; it’s exhaustively detailed and well-researched; it’s honest and accurate in its critiques of North American Christianity; and it’s vulnerable and open about what it’s like to live as a gay Christian in the 21st century North American Church.
But there’s one thing I liked about it more than anything else, and that’s how compellingly and convincingly Johnson calls us as North American Christians to recenter our conversations about sexual ethics (including the debate over homosexuality) in the context of the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Is the Biblical Ethic Inherently Violent to Gay People?”
In one chapter, which Johnson poignantly titles, “Is the Biblical Ethic Inherently Violent to Gay People?,” he writes about the Church’s need to restore discussions of sexual ethics to a Gospel context. He says:
Biblically, God’s moral law—apart from his grace—kills.
The moral vision of the Bible shows us how poorly we measure up. It exposes our shame. And in so doing, it shows us how desperately we need a savior. God’s law was put in charge to lead us to Christ “that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). Without the radical grace of Jesus, this biblical sexual ethic [Johnson means the traditionalist view] is inherently violent to all people—not just gay people—because it exposes our shame. (Johnson, Greg. Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn from the Church's Failed Attempt to Cure Homosexuality. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2021. 183.)
Johnson elaborates what he means by the word “violent”:
The biblical sexual ethic is inherently violent to my pride. Violent to my delusional insistence that I’m one of the good people. Violent to my self-righteousness. Violent to my vain attempt to build an identity for myself that will last. Violent to my confidence that I know what’s best for me. Violent to my desire not to need a savior. There was a Greg Johnson who had to die in order to become alive to God. (Johnson, 183)
But then Johnson explains why discussions of sexual ethics (or, I would argue, ethics in general) need to be centered in the context of the Gospel:
This pedagogical use of the law points us to Jesus. “There is no difference…, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:22-24). To be justified is to be declared righteous. It means that just as your sin and shame were transferred to Jesus on the cross, so his righteousness was transferred to you when you trusted him. That means you have Jesus’ resume.
To remove the biblical sexual ethic from its pedagogical context leading us to Jesus is to weaponize the law of God in ways that the New Testament does not. Divorced from this message of radical grace and acceptance in Jesus, the biblical sexual ethic can easily crush gay and lesbian people. Divorced from the biblical context of the gospel, the biblical sexual ethic can lead to despair, self-hatred, morbid introspection, and overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame.
When the biblical sexual ethic is not wrapped in the compassionate and gentle embrace of Jesus, it can drive people to suicide. And it has done just that. That’s what law without the gospel can do.
In that sense, the biblical sexual ethic—when robbed of its gospel-oriented pedagogical use—can be violent to all people, leaving us exposed and ashamed, without excuse, despairing of our unworthiness and without hope. It is the gospel that is the power of God to save. Not the law. (Johnson, 183)
But then Johnson offers a way forward. He argues for what he calls a “gospel culture” in the Church. He writes:
The biblical sexual ethic must be bathed in radical grace for it to be truly life-giving. Unless a gospel culture permeates a church or ministry, any discussion of the biblical sexual ethic will abuse and beat down and not inspire anyone to pursue holiness. Until we know that our Father actually likes us, we will lack the ability to get outside of ourselves enough to see the beauty of God’s law, particularly at the point at which it tells us we are defective. (Johnson, 184-185)
Johnson goes on:
I have heard many horror stories about growing up as a Christian and realizing you’re not straight. A common thread in people’s stories is that their church was not a safe place to be a sinner loved by Jesus. They lacked the gospel culture that could have made God’s law profitable in their life. (Johnson, 185)
But then Johnson closes by saying:
I have heard the siren call of a secular culture that tells me to embrace my homosexuality with a gusto and find myself a boyfriend or three. I have also heard the siren call of religious pharisaism that tells me to fake it ‘til I make it. I have followed that latter call and found it wanting. It’s like the two brothers Jesus described who both wanted their Father dead. I feel the call of the prodigal to a far off country, but I grew up in that country and found it wanting. However, I have also heard the siren call of the elder brother. I followed that call and found it, too, wanting. I have found life in the call of Jesus, a third way distinct from the other two. In Jesus I have found the embrace of divine love just as I am, without one plea.
Is the biblical sexual ethic inherently violent to gay people?
To the degree in which it is immersed in a biblical culture of radical grace, it is not.
To the degree that it is removed from that biblical gospel culture, however, it becomes weaponized and cannot help but do violence to gay people. A church or ministry cannot responsibly have a discussion of sexual ethics apart from a discussion of the gospel. Any attempt to present a biblical view of homosexuality will do harm unless it is couched in a larger discussion about Jesus’ love for gay people as image bearers and as objects of redemption in Christ. Any writing about homosexuality is in essence writing about gay people. And the bare minimum to make such writing nonviolent involves stating very clearly from the outset, “We’re so sorry for what you’ve been through. We’re sorry for where we’ve made it even harder. We love you. You have dignity as an image bearer of God. Jesus really loves gay people. Jesus loves you. His gospel is for gay people. His salvation covers all our shame.” If it doesn’t start there—or someplace very close—there is a high likelihood that anything written or said on the subject of homosexuality will inherently be experienced as violent by many. But if you keep it Christ-centered, even the bad news can be experienced as good news in Jesus. (Johnson, 186)
A Gospel Culture
I have endeavored in this series of articles to help us think through what it might look like for the CRC to do what we said we would do fifty years ago and, even as we hold a traditional Biblical perspective on sexuality, move towards a more hospitable, inclusive, and welcoming posture towards LGBTQ+ people.
But all of what I’ve written is for naught if we don’t have the sort of “gospel culture” Johnson describes here. If our churches aren’t, as he puts it, “safe places to be sinners loved by Jesus” (and I fear, from both personal and anecdotal experience, that many of them are not), then all our talk about sex, sexuality, and sexual ethics will remain just that—talk—and it will be talk that harms those we talk about too.
But, if we can become that kind of church; if we can be congregations where sinners can come, experience love and grace, and find themselves in the arms of their Father, ready to welcome them home, kill the fattened calf, and throw them a party; if we can be communities where self-righteous, pharisaical “good people” can have their hard hearts melted, their anxieties stripped away, and their selfish condemnation of others put to death; and if we can be the winsome, loving, light-to-the-dark-places cities-on-a-hill we’re called to be; then maybe, just maybe, we can do some good; minister to LGBTQ+ people (and everyone else too); and finally become the sort of church we said we’d become fifty years ago.
Maybe it’s just me, but that’s a church I’d want to be a part of; that’s a church I’d want to minister in; and that’s a church I think others would want to be a part of and minister in too.
By God’s grace and the power of his Spirit, I think we can be that kind of church, a church with a gospel culture at its core. I pray, one day, we will be.
Quick note: If you’ve stuck with me through this series of articles, I want to sincerely and humbly thank you. I know not all of you have likely found these easy to read. But I appreciate you taking the time to do so. It means a lot. Soli Deo Gloria.