I often encounter wonderful compassion that Christians offer gays and lesbians. And then there are calls like the one I recently received from Linda. “I just went to church for the first time in 3 years”, she confesses. It turns out that she stopped going to church three years ago after her then 15 year old son Peter confided in his youth pastor about his struggle with same-sex desires. His youth pastor responded, “You need to renounce your feelings or you will have to leave the youth group.” Peter did not want to lie, “Pastor, I can’t renounce the feelings…they’re inside me.” The youth pastor told him, “The choice is yours to make.” Today, that boy has not renounced his same-sex attractions…he’s renounced anything to do with the Christian faith! And Linda, his mother, is still visibly wounded even as she now returns to church. I thought these were the stories of the 70’s, but this kind of tragic counseling happens even today.
Hush Now, Voices Carry
There are three (3) ineffective paths that a majority of our churches follow in dealing with homosexuality. Some offer compassion that celebrates homosexuality while disregarding Biblical truth. Others hold high the absolutism of Biblical truth while extending little compassion. I would venture to say the largest number of our churches simply take the path of least resistance…silence.
This path of silence tragically affects thousands of families within our churches who have homosexual loved ones. I meet many families who are active leaders in their churches. John and Kathy are such leaders – they have been in the same small group for several years. They are fully known by their small group – except the small detail that their daughter is lesbian. They tried to share a couple of times with other Christian friends and ended up getting burned badly. An un-thoughtful response made them feel judged; a rude comment made them feel like their daughter was being severely devalued; and gossip left them roiling with hurt and anger. Share? No thanks!
This “silence” within the church leads many families to intense isolation in their struggle to relate to a homosexual loved one. Think about this: can you imagine how such a family feels when a pastor gives a sermon on homosexuality and thinks he has “addressed” the issue of homosexuality in the church? “Homosexual relationships are wrong? Tell me something I don’t know!” Families want more than a reminder. They want to know how to connect and relate to a homosexual loved one; they want to know how to build hope in the face of daunting odds that their child will ever surrender their homosexuality identity to Jesus; and yes, they want to be reminded how valuable and worthy the life of their child is in the eyes of God.
We as the church must stop thinking we’ve “ministered” to the issues around homosexuality by listening to a sermon or signing a marriage protection petition. Alone, they do not constitute a holistic ministry and Biblical response to families who have homosexual loved ones.
Paying a Big Price
“But what else can we do?” some counter. “This is such a volatile issue. The risk of doing more is too great. We might become known as a hate church. Or people might think we are watering down the Gospel if we get too kind on this issue. Or parents might feel like we’re blaming them. Or seekers might feel unwelcome. Or activists might disrupt our ministry.” While these are understandable concerns, there is nonetheless a gaping hole in our ministry to families of homosexual loved ones, and they pay a high price for our inadequate care for them.
Parents and families may pay a price, but homosexual sons and daughters may pay the heaviest price. For it seems that in all this silence and isolation, many parents and families have been either explicitly counseled or simply perceived in the midst of silence that to be a “good” Christian they must not show any affirmation that might be interpreted as “approval” by their child. And so many Christians aiming to be faithful to the Bible and their churches have ventured into the error of establishing degrees of separation with their children! In the process, they have pushed their children further from Jesus Christ instead of attracting them to Jesus.
Playing the Pharisee
This propensity leaves parents and families in great danger of falling into the role of Pharisee. It was the Pharisees who cursed Jesus for dining and spending time with “sinners” on their turf and their terms. The Pharisees wanted Jesus to fit nicely into their box-sized view of a black and white “god” where it is easily determined whether one is “in” or “out” of the kingdom. And my friends, today we often study Scripture criticizing the comical errors of the Pharisees even as we fall – unknowingly – into playing the role of Pharisee. It is sad enough that we sometimes play the role of Pharisee – it is more tragic that we encourage others to play the role of Pharisee toward their own children!
Some have countered, “It is the Gospel that offends. People reject the Gospel because they don’t want to repent of sin.” True, the Gospel will always be offensive to many and we will never escape this reality. However, if our sons and daughters are pushed away from Jesus not because of the Gospel but because of you and I, that is where we run the risk of playing Pharisee. While we do want to fully abide by Scripture, we don’t ever want to use Scripture to push homosexual children further away from Jesus.
To the contrary, we want to work hard to build byways, u-turns and secret passageways that lead prodigals back to the heart of Jesus Christ! We want to avoid constructing roadblocks and detours that lead prodigals further from Jesus! Paul gives us a clue as to how we can avoid setting up such roadblocks. He cautions us, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” Humbly, he continues, “Or do you show contempt for the riches of His kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?”
To offer this depth of kindness, patience and, yes, tolerance…we’ll have to dine and spend time with sinners! Yes, sometimes on their turf and their terms! My friends, we can’t dine and spend time with sinners if we’re erecting barriers of separation to please modern day Pharisees! If this approach was good enough for Jesus, then it’s not only good enough for us…it’s more like a command that we ought to follow. Jesus wants parents and families to patiently pursue and passionately love their homosexual children! And we as the church need to encourage them to do nothing less!
Waking the Dead
I shared my testimony at a Christian Sexuality Conference in the Midwest a few years ago. After my faith story, an elderly man came up to me and wrapped his huge arms around me. Leroy was a farmer, a country man, in a rural part of the country. As someone who came out of homosexuality a decade ago, I must say that the fatherly hug of this wonderfully masculine, pastoral, gentle father deeply nourished me. But it was his words that struck me even more deeply, “Today…” he said with tears and a smile, “…today, the Lord gave me permission to love my only boy right where he is at. I have felt that I had to pull away from him to be a godly Christian man, but today I know that the natural desire I have felt to just love him right where he is at is the right thing for me to do.” My heart ached as I considered how long this father had suffered in silence thinking he was serving God by pulling away from his son. And yet I celebrated with him that he experienced freedom from the bondage of playing the Pharisee to enter into the messy work of following Jesus to capture the heart of his “only boy”.
None of us want to play the role of the Pharisee nor do we intend to cause others to play the role of the Pharisee. As people who are called by God’s name – Christians – we are stewards of His reputation and hence we don’t even want to be perceived as a Pharisee. And yet we are indeed often perceived and portrayed just that way. And yes, often it is because we bring it on ourselves by what we do or what we say. We can do better!
It is true that we can’t make others like us or our Biblical beliefs or the Gospel. But we can reach beyond our silence! We can reach beyond the slippery slope of a compassion that disregards the authority of God’s Word. We can reach beyond the hard heart of an absolute truth that coldly shuts off compassion. We can follow our Lord Jesus Christ and start dining and spending time with sinners. And we can proactively and positively encourage families who have homosexual loved ones to do likewise. It is understandable that not every church is ready to go directly evangelize in the gay community – but every church can learn to adequately care for families who have homosexual loved ones!
Once we are free from the bondage of fear and silence, we will quickly awaken to the reality that it is not only “ok” with Jesus to minister to such families…it is His very call upon the Body of Christ to do nothing less! Especially in a culture that has become so polarized over this issue and where such polarity clouds the power and grace of the Gospel to those outside our churches!
Jesus Has a Message
Jesus has a message for us regarding how to care for and encourage such families. His message is a healing balm to families who have struggled in silence and isolation living under the bondage of fear – and often defaulting to pulling away from their homosexual children.
In the story of the Lost Son, Jesus powerfully shows us that we are all prone to wander away from God – we either wander into sin or we wander into playing the Pharisee. He mercifully reveals the passionate love and grace that God desires to give us. In the story, Jesus shows us how the Prodigal Father (God) interacts with our Lost Sons and Daughters. Get ready to be deeply nourished by God’s mercy and empowered to take His mercy in passionate pursuit of your prodigal loved ones!
Prodigal Father Love
The first trait of the Prodigal Father is that he was not shocked or surprised by his son’s sinful heart. He knew his son’s heart since the boy was young. He could see the rebellion building over the years. He could see the arrogant and self-sufficient attitude growing. And so it was no surprise when his son sinned against him in such an offensive manner. He had the wisdom to know, “There are none righteous, no not one.”
The second trait of the Prodigal Father is that he was gentle towards his son’s rebellion. Just as God will often turn us over to the desires of our heart – even when He knows it’s not best for us – the Prodigal Father is not out to argue with his son. He knows that a harsh response will drive his son further into rebellion. The days of discipline are over – this boy is a man and it’s time for this young man to find out if the “god” that is guiding him is sustainable or not. Of course the father knows such a path is not sustainable but there is no convincing a rebellious son. The father is wise to understand that some lessons we must – unfortunately – learn from personal experience.
The third trait of the Prodigal Father is that he protected his son from punishment for this egregious sin. It was common in that day for a father to give over land prior to his death but he always did so by his own will. A son demanding an inheritance was an egregiously evil act – one that would have given the father a basis to turn his son over to the authorities to be stoned to death. And so theologians tell us that the Prodigal Father likely had to protect his son from those who would want to judge and punish him by public stoning for his evil behavior. We have to remember that Jesus is telling us this story for us to learn – the question is what do we learn from it? We learn that God’s mercy covers all kinds of sin. He does not always remove the consequences of our sin, but out of His mercy He often protects us even as we disobey Him. The Prodigal Father is not affirming or approving or enabling his son’s behavior – he simply has the wisdom to know that he is out of control…he has no ability to make his son’s heart right. He must turn his son over into the hands of life and pray God protects him even as he disobeys. His hope is not in what is seen, his hope is what is unseen – a faith, a prayer, a hope that his son’s prodigal journey will come to an end and his son will one day return home. This is a dangerous grace for there are no promises…there are no guarantees! Yet there is nothing else he can do – but hope, pray and protect where possible.
The fourth trait of the Prodigal Father is that he passionately pursues his Lost Son. Some will say, “Well, he never went to visit his son!” True. However, that is likely because this rebellious boy set off to an unknown foreign land and never told his father where he was going! But oh, did he passionately pursue his Lost Son! In the morning at sunrise, while working in the field, at noon break, at evening meal, at sunset and in his nightly prayers…his eyes never stopped scanning the horizon and his heart never stopped hoping! The Prodigal Father longed for his Lost Son and reached across the heavens with prayers believing that God would protect him and return him.
The final trait of the Prodigal Father is that he is always ready to receive his Lost Son solely on the basis of his unconditional love for his Lost Son! In this story, the father catches the profile of his son on the horizon and immediately starts running out to greet his son! His son has not even repented yet! Indeed, for all the Prodigal Father knows, his Lost Son might be coming back to say, “Could I have another plot of land?” It’s outrageous grace freely bestowed upon his son in the midst of his utter sinfulness. And indeed it is Christ who has come to you and I – all of us – while we were yet sinners! All the more reason that we should not only celebrate when “lost” sons and daughters come home, but we should go to them in the midst of their sin just as our Savior – the ultimate Prodigal Father – has done for us. We should go to them to build byways and secret passageways back home to the heart of Jesus Christ. We must dine and spend time with them on their turf and their terms.
Moving Beyond the “Culture War” to “Care”
The see-saw of sin has been leveled. None of us are righteous, not one of us! God does not show favoritism to “us” while railing against “them” for their particularly egregious sin. No, He pursues sinners. He is patient and kind with prodigals. And He is tolerant of us all – because we all fall short of His glory.
If there is any hierarchy of sinfulness, it might be that our sins as born again believers – divorce, internet pornography, anger, bitterness, gossip, materialism and playing the role of Pharisee – are more offensive to God than the sin of homosexuality in the life of one who is still out on a prodigal journey.
Do you remember when the Pharisees brought the woman caught in adultery to Jesus? He told them, “Whoever is without sin can throw the first stone.” And then he bent down and wrote in the sand. One-by-one they walked away angry, unable to throw a stone. Jesus did not say to the woman, “Go and enjoy your sexual freedom.” To the contrary, He told her, “Go and sin no more.” We can never forget that truth. And yet we can never forget that we are to apply these parables to our own lives…as opposed to using them to go around placing some people in attractive sin buckets and others in appalling sin buckets. And in applying these parables, I have learned that I must be committed to care for sinners and invest in building byways and secret pathways back to the heart of Jesus!
Your church may not be ready to go into the gay community to share the Gospel. But every church can invest evangelistically into the gay community by encouraging families of homosexual children to offer Prodigal Father love to their loved ones. To be “good” Christians, that is what Jesus calls us to do. We as the church need to stand with such families and care for them as they passionately pursue the heart of their homosexual loved ones. This is what it means to be a church committed to caring for families who have homosexual loved ones.
About the Author
Bill J. Henson, Jr. is Founder and President of Lead Them Home, Inc., which equips Christian ministry to homosexuals and their families. He is the creator of FAMILY CARE, a workshop designed to minister to families and train church staff and seminary students on practical ways of loving homosexual children. Beyond the Culture War, Christ is Calling…“Fish On The Other Side.” You can learn more at http://www.fishontheotherside.org.