Wading through a Mess

This past Sunday morning we kicked off a brand-new series called, Answers to Tough Questions. For the next few weeks leading up to Easter, we are going to tackle some of the biggest cultural debates going on around us and into which Christians are expected to be able to speak with grace and poise. With the Scriptures as our guide, we are going to talk about what it looks like to respond to each of these issues as followers of Jesus. Yesterday we started with a bang: The LGBT+ debate. Isn’t God anti-LGBT+? Let’s talk about it.

Wading through a Mess

We live today in a polarized culture. We hear that so often that it’s almost cliché to say, but that doesn’t make it any less true. The old adage about polite conversation is that you can talk about anything but religion and politics. Of the two topics, religion covered the most ground and was the most controversial. Politics had a much smaller sphere of influence. Yes, people could get pretty worked up about certain issues, but on the whole, it was the safer of the two. Today…that reality has reversed itself.  Religion covers an ever-shrinking amount of territory as it continues to lose the ground it once held in our culture. Politics, on the other hand, seems to intrude into every aspect of our lives. And this isn’t a left-right issue. The truth is that in the hearts of many, if not their minds as well, politics is increasingly taking the place religion once held as the source to which we turn to find answers for the most pressing questions we face. And indeed, when God is not ultimate, something else has to be. The trend for most human cultures over the centuries is that we give the State that place when we don’t give it to God. This is a tension that has been with the church since its earliest days.

The danger here, though, is that politics is fundamentally composed of people. Well, if we turn to people to answer questions whose answers necessarily go beyond people, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and frustration and, occasionally, disaster. The real battle, though, comes not from people looking to politics for answers to big worldview questions. The real battle comes when you take people who have turned to politics for those answers and people who still turn to a supernatural higher power for those answers, mix them all up in a single culture, and tell them to try and get along. Much of the polarization we deal with today is the result of people turning to two fundamentally different sources of authority to get solutions to the various issues they face. This is over and above the tension that comes when people have made politics ultimate but hope to get different things from it. In our current cultural climate, there are few clashes resulting from these worldview differences that get as ugly as quickly as the maze of LGBT+ issues.

We’ll come back to that in a second. This morning we are kicking off a brand-new series called Answers to Tough Questions. In case you haven’t noticed, the world around us is changing. We are experiencing a culture-wide clash of worldviews that for many folks can be truly disorienting. Things we once took for granted are barely recognized as truthful any longer. Issues we once figured were settled—or at least not discussed in polite company—are thrust in our faces all the time. Not only are they thrust in our faces, but we are expected to have well-thought out answers that are able to withstand the withering scrutiny and criticism they are going to receive if they don’t toe whatever the cultural line happens to be in the moment. These issues cover a range of topics as well. We’ve already mentioned LGBT issues, but there is also the immigration debate, the abortion debate, and the still occasionally loud clashes between science and faith.

Making matters even more complicated is the fact professed followers of Jesus fall on every possible side of each of these issues. The fact is: It is difficult to identify one single “Christian” response to most of these issues because people claiming that mantle answer them in every conceivable way.

Still, truth is something that doesn’t change based on the opinion of the one pursuing it. On each of the big worldview issues we’ve mentioned there is truth that exists. That doesn’t necessarily mean there is some monolithic solution to each debate, but it does mean that there are some basic principles which, if followed carefully, will lead us through them without too much in the way of chaos and needless conflict.

Starting this morning and wrapping up on Easter Sunday, we are going to spend the next few weeks (with a break to highlight the awesome students we have here at First Baptist in a couple of weeks) examining some of the toughest questions we face as followers of Jesus in an increasingly hostile culture with an eye toward the basic principles that can give us the confidence to answer them as followers of Jesus. Each week we are going to turn to the Scriptures to see what guys like Paul and Moses, John and Jesus had to say about the matters. The first four parts are going to be focused on more culturally relevant issues, but let me encourage you to mark your calendars to be here on Easter Sunday morning. That morning we are going to take a look at the most important question of all; the one whose answer changes everything. You won’t want to miss that.

As for this morning, as promised, we’re going to wade into the murky, often stormy waters of the LGBT+ debate and see if we can’t bring some clarity to a question that is regularly thrown in our faces as followers of Jesus. In fact, most of our culture today assumes on an answer to this question that doesn’t leave us looking so good. The question is this: Isn’t God (and by extension, the church) anti-LGBT+? 

Now, how does the culture around us answer that question? With a resounding yes, right? And let’s be honest with each other for a minute this morning: People claiming the name of Jesus have far too often behaved in a manner that would seem to totally justify that answer. I mean, when you have cult groups like the unfortunately and wildly-inaccurately named Westboro Baptist Church marching around waving ugly signs, and blaming people on the LGBT spectrum for all manner of societal ills, it’s no wonder that folks who don’t have anything to do with Jesus don’t want anything to do with His church. At the same time, though, and right in line with what I said a second ago about the diversity of opinions among professed followers of Jesus, there are many churches which have wholly embraced the culture’s acceptance of the issue and are often the ones leading the cultural charge against their brothers and sisters who haven’t and don’t plan to embrace it similarly.

If we try and sort through all of this on our own, we don’t have much of a chance of getting it right. We’ve got to turn to the Scriptures on this one and work to understand carefully both what the authors said and what they didn’t say. Part of the complexity of our addressing the question guiding our conversation this morning is that it is really a two-pronged issue. The L, G, and B together form one prong, and the T+ forms the other. We’ll come back to that second prong in a little while. On that first prong, there are several passages in the Bible that mention the issue of homosexuality. Of these passages, what Paul wrote to the believers in ancient Rome provides a really strong foundation for how we can respond to this question with grace and truth.

If you have a copy of the Scriptures with you in some form this morning, find your way with me to Romans 1. Let’s start looking at this in v. 18 and walk through what Paul says together. “For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them.” Are you with me so far? God has revealed Himself and His nature to us. When we cover up those revelations by our insistence on doing things that violate His character and commands, He isn’t happy about it. When someone behaves in such a way that obscures the truth about God so that someone else can’t see it as clearly, God isn’t happy about it. This kind of thing is like putting blinders or even a blindfold over someone’s eyes that blocks their view of God. “For,” back to the text now in v. 20, “his invisible attributes, that is, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what he has made. As a result, people are without excuse.” Trying to say we didn’t have enough evidence to know whether or not God exists falls flat. God’s already knocked all the legs out from under that stool by virtue of the way He designed the world to reveal Himself to us.

That’s all the big problem with the world at large. Next, Paul gets more specific about what the problem is and what are its consequences. “For though they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became worthless, and their senseless hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles.” Make sense?

Here’s what Paul is saying: When we reject God, it affects our thinking. Think about it like this: If you start arguing that 2+2=5, you’re going to get math wrong. Not just math problems, you’re going to get the whole thing wrong. Your foundational assumptions will be off. It would be like building a building, but reading the plans upside down the whole time. You may put up some kind of a structure, but it isn’t going to be right. If we reject the source of all truth, we will be living a lie. That’s going to work itself out in our lives. The question is how, not whether.

The next thing Paul says in v. 24 is, “Therefore God delivered them over…” Now, that’s a statement of judgment. But notice how it’s phrased. This is not some fiery, active judgment on God’s part. It doesn’t have to be. Sometimes the consequences of our choices are judgment enough. In this case, we decided we wanted to do life apart from God, pretending we didn’t know Him when the evidence for His existence, character, and nature is undeniable. And as a result…God let us.

Over the next several verses, then, Paul offers some examples of what this judgment looks like. He starts with a kind of summary statement and then offers a more specific example before offering one more summary statement. Look at this with me. “Therefore God delivered them over in the desires of their hearts to sexual impurity, so that their bodies were degraded among themselves. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served what has been created instead of the Creator, who is praised forever. Amen.”

That’s the summary statement. The gist is this: When we reject God, worshiping creation instead of its Creator, because of the nature of our most common sinful desires, sexual impurity of varying kinds is going to ensue. Because sex itself is such a powerful thing, desires twisted by sin invariably turn to involve it in some way. Paul’s more detailed description at v. 26 offers a specific example of the form this can take: “For this reason God delivered them over [there’s that same phrase again] to disgraceful passions. Their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. The men in the same way also left natural relations with women and were inflamed in their lust for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the appropriate penalty of their error.”

That’s the more specific example. And, given our culture, that’s tough, isn’t it? His words on the matter are pretty clear in spite of what some critics will allege, and they aren’t very friendly to the issue. Still, Paul’s goal isn’t to highlight this particular consequence of the brokenness of sin working itself out through our lives to the exclusion of others. His goal isn’t to paint this as somehow much worse—or even terribly different from—any other outworking of sin. This becomes clear in what comes next. He talks about God delivering us over to the consequences of our sinfulness one more time in v. 28: “And because they did not think it worthwhile to acknowledge God, God delivered them over to a corrupt mind so that they do what is not right.” There again is that idea that when we reject God it messes with our minds in ways we may not notice or even understand until much later. And what are the results of this? Chaos. Verse 29: “They are filled with all unrighteousness, evil, greed, and wickedness. They are full of envy, murder, quarrels, deceit, and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, arrogant, proud, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents [students, don’t overlook the fact that Paul included that specifically among all these other sins], senseless, untrustworthy, unloving, and unmerciful. Although they know God’s just sentence—that those who practice such things deserve to die—they not only do them, but even applaud others who practice them.” Clear enough? When we refuse to acknowledge God as God, anything goes, and most of it—let’s just say all of it—isn’t good. Homosexual behavior in any form happens to be one outworking of our refusal to give God His due, but it’s just one of many, many ways we get life wrong when we set off down that path.

As I was preparing for this morning, one of my first thoughts was that I would try and compile a series of the biggest questions that get debated in conversations…and arguments…about the issue and then answer them one by one. The more I thought about it, though, that would not only take way more time than we had to do well, it wouldn’t be a wise use of our time. No, the more I thought about it and thought about this text, the more it became clear that if we can answer two simple questions, our way forward as followers of Jesus will be much clearer than it will be otherwise. These two questions serve to clarify what the real issues here are.

There are two questions because, again, there are two prongs to this larger issue. The reason there are two prongs to the LGBT+ debate is that there is a fundamental worldview divide between the L, G, and B and the T+. Think about why: The idea of someone being identified as homosexual or bisexual assumes that being male or female matters. After all, how can we say a man is attracted to a man or a woman a woman unless we know what a man and a woman are. When you start talking about transgenderism and the range of identities covered by the plus often tacked on the end of the acronym, though, the very concept of male and female as clearly identifiable and even objective categories flies out the window. Because of this inherent line of division, trying to cover both comprehensively will be impossible this morning. But again, our goal is principles to apply, not answers to every question.

In any event, the first question relates to the L, G, and B. And how we answer this one question determines everything about how we approach the issue. The question is this: Is it sin? Is sexual intimacy morally permissible in any context outside of marriage? Here’s why this question is the most fundamental we can ask: If the answer is, “No, it isn’t sin,” then there’s no debate here. Of course it’s all okay, and why would anyone think otherwise? If, on the other hand, the answer is, “Yes, it is sin,” then there should also be no debate about it at the very least as followers of Jesus are concerned. And the reason for that is simple: We cannot give moral approval to any kind of sin. Sin separates people from God and it is unloving to tell someone it won’t when we know that it will. That is, if homosexual behavior is sinful, then it does not matter how much we don’t want to hurt the feelings of our homosexual friends, to allow them to believe that piece of their behavior is doing anything other than separating them from God is unloving in the highest degree. It is telling a drowning person that he’s swimming along just fine. Well, from what we see Paul arguing here and from the broader witness of Scripture, it is clear that for followers of Jesus, our answer to the question needs to be a humble, gentle, but firm, “Yes, it is.”

That means that as followers of Jesus, we cannot give moral approval to any policy or cultural movement that would confer an aura of legitimacy to any form of sexual intimacy outside the bounds of marriage whether that is homosexual or heterosexual. To put that more plainly: We cannot support gay marriage or any other form of marriage other than a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman, or any kind of extramarital heterosexual activity. Now, how do you think that plays in our culture? Yeah, it doesn’t. At all. We should anticipate hatred, abuse, and persecution for holding to such a position. But that this needs to be our position is clear.

Now, before some of you even have a chance to ask the question I suspect is forming in many of your minds, let me ask you something: Have you ever desired to do something that guys like Paul identified as sinful in the Scriptures? Should I have everyone raise their hands just for a show of solidarity? Of course you have. So have I. Did that desire by itself constitute a sin? It didn’t, did it? It’s just like our laws don’t punish people who think about committing crimes; it only punishes those who actually commit them. Now, if you get so fixated on whatever this desire is that it becomes a kind of idol for you, that’s a problem, but if you don’t follow through on the desire, if you deny yourself for the sake of doing what’s right instead, there’s no harm or foul there. Right?

Make the connection with me. Can people who identify as homosexual in some fashion still be followers of Jesus? Of course they can. Are they going to have to say no to some desires with which most of us will never struggle? Yes, but I suspect you and I struggle with desires for sinful things that are different from what they face because they’re them and you and me are you and me. We have to deny those just like they have to deny theirs. At the foot of the cross the ground is level, yes? And it may be that God takes certain sinful desires away from us when we plant ourselves fully and firmly in His hands. He’s certainly done that kind of thing before. Some alcoholics lose a desire for alcohol in Christ and some homosexuals become heterosexual. But it may also be that He doesn’t and instead leaves us, like Paul, in a place where we have to trust more fully in Him to compensate for some weakness of our flesh.

Now, do you hear the kind of language we’re using here? We shouldn’t treat homosexuality any differently from any other sin. Yes, there is and has always been more cultural baggage associated with it because it is different from the norm in some really key ways, and, yes, that makes dealing with the issue way more complicated than it should otherwise be, but if we buy into that in our approach to it as followers of Jesus, we’re bound to get off track by either falling to rejecting people instead of behavior or embracing sin along with the sinners committing it. You see, we’re not being anti-anything here except the outworking of sin in the lives of people for whom Jesus died. Rather, we are for people. We are for people enjoying the fruits that come only from pursuing the life of Christ with intentionality and determination in spite of the obstacles they face.

That’s the first question. The second question gets at the heart of the T+ and we’re not going to do more than just touch on this today. Here it is: What is gender? Is it merely a social construct that forces people into preconceived boxes fashioned by a hateful and bigoted society, or is it something given by God in our creation? Do you see the contrast there? Do you see why there is tension around this issue? Now, we can’t answer this question from what Paul said here to the believers in ancient Rome, but from the weight of evidence of guys like Moses and Jesus, we must answer in favor of the latter. Additionally, everything we know from the realm of science points in this direction. Genetically speaking, a person is either male or female and there is no such thing as switching back and forth for our species.

Now, the truth is that there is a tiny percentage of folks who do genuinely struggle with accepting the biological fact of their creation. And the lot of folks who have gender dysphoria is not an easy one. They deserve our compassion and gentle care. We must also be compassionate and gentle when people—particularly young people—wrestle with embracing their biological gender because of the social climate in which they have immersed themselves. Such a thing is a documented reality. Much research has shown that the vast majority of young people who struggle with embracing their biological gender at some point in their adolescence will eventually grow out of such struggles all on their own by the time they reach adulthood. They need patience and positive affirmation of who God designed them to be. What is not needed in either of these situations is for us to cheer on the confusion and lend our support to policies that much research has shown do not bring meaningful relief to the struggles they face.

Those are our two big questions. Their answers define the path we need to take if we are going to wade well through this difficult issue. If those two questions and their answers help to define the path we need to walk when it comes to this difficult issue, though, it is the way we too often walk that path that nonetheless earns us the label anti-gay or anti-trans or anti-LGBT+ or what have you. In light of this, there is just one more question we need to ask here if we are going to get this issue right as followers of Jesus. The last question is this: How should we treat people who believe and behave in ways that differ from what we have been talking about so far this morning? Well, Jesus Himself settled that question on the night before He was taken to the cross where He put into glorious practice what He had been preaching.

Flip or swipe over with me in your Bibles to John 13 and let’s take a look at this together. The scene is Jesus sitting around the table with His disciples at what has become known as the Last Supper. He has just revealed to them that one of them is going to betray Him in the hours ahead of them. Coincidentally—or so they all thought—He has also just dismissed Judas to go and do whatever he was going to do. With the mood around the table still tense from the preceding few minutes, Jesus looks at them and announces that He is soon going to be leaving them to a place they cannot yet come. With all of that in mind, He announces that He has something new for them. Look at this starting in v. 34: “I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Now, if you’re keeping count, that’s three “love one another’s” in the span of two verses. You think maybe He’s getting at something? We can save a detailed examination of this text for another time. For now, there’s just one thing I want us to see together. How are we to be known as followers of Jesus? What is the means by which anyone can know that we are His disciples? By our love for one another. If we are going to walk the path of Christ with anything even remotely resembling success, we will walk it with love as our guide.

Fine, but what does that look like? Remember what we talked about just last week? What does love in action look like? It looks like patience and kindness. It looks like contentment and humility. It looks like graciousness and generosity of spirit. It looks like not focusing in on what’s wrong with people, but celebrating what is right.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. That sounds good. What does this look like when it comes to walking as followers of Jesus through the mess of LGBT+ issues? I mean, these people are sinners, aren’t they? Sure, but no more than we are apart from Christ. Anyone separated from Jesus is a sinner by definition. The question for us is not whether folks who believe and behave in ways that diverge from what we understand from the Scriptures is right and true when it comes to this issue are sinners, but how we can follow well the example of Jesus when it comes to interacting with sinners around us. We know that the way of Christ leads to life. That’s not at issue. At issue is how we approach those who don’t walk it. So then, how do we approach them? How did Jesus handle sinners? With love. The way of Christ leads to life, but we still love those who don’t walk it. The way of Christ leads to life, but we still love those who don’t walk it.

As for exactly what this looks like, that’s going to depend on the situation. For starters, we welcome them. A person’s perceived sexuality has no bearing on whether or not he can worship alongside the body of Christ. Any body of Christ which thinks and acts otherwise is making a huge statement about their own prejudices and lack of love. Unfortunately, though, a keenly watching world doesn’t understand that a failure on the part of one church doesn’t represent a failing on the part of every church. Receiving those who are the least like Christ is something every church has to get right lest we fail in our most fundamental mission of connecting lost people to Jesus. The way of Christ leads to life, but we still love those who don’t walk it.

Second, we never pass judgment on people for their perceived sexual identity if they make no claim to follow Jesus. Unbelievers are going to act like unbelievers and that should neither surprise nor repulse us. They are simply being who they are. They are being true to the only nature they have. Instead of offering judgment, we offer only kindness and respect. It may well be that they’ve got a mess going on in their life and have overcome much internal resistance to come to the only place that will really be able to help them through it. It may be that God plans to use our kindness to draw them to redemption. The way of Christ leads to life, but we still love those who don’t walk it.

Okay, sure, but at what point do we tell them that they’re wrong? We don’t. Did that get your attention? That’s not quite right. When we have developed and built up a context of loving relationship, it may be that the opportunity will present itself for us to share from out of the trust they have in us that the kind of choices they are making are not going to lead them to enjoy the life that is truly life. Until they decide to accept Christ’s invitation to make Him their Lord and Savior, that’s about as far as we go. We never back off from humbly, but firmly holding to the truth when asked about it, and even proclaiming it with gentle boldness, but telling them they are wrong is not our place. Again, unbelievers are going to act like unbelievers. Instead, we proclaim in word and deed what is right along with the consequences of turning to the wrong, and let the Spirit do the rest. When they are ready to follow Jesus, then we make clear such a decision necessarily involves a repenting from sin and help them understand the places where sin is present in their life. Then, we walk with them as they grow in righteousness and sanctification with the help of the Holy Spirit. If we are right in our understanding of what guys like Paul were inspired by the Holy Spirit to identify as sin, He will call them from it and enable them to resist it when they’ve given themselves to Him. What we do is to love. The way of Christ leads to life, but we still love those who don’t walk it.

Now, does this answer every question and resolve every tension surrounding this deeply sensitive issue? No, it doesn’t. Not even close. But then, we were never going to be able to do that this morning. What it does, however, is give us a way forward on it. Whether someone is straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, or any of the rest of the alphabet soup that is culturally fashionable to talk about, that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus loves them and so must we. We cannot offer any moral support to the behavioral choices and their broader implications that often come with claiming one of those many identifies, but the people who claim them must never be seen as anything less than unique creations of God for whom Jesus died and we must absolutely follow Him in loving and receiving them just as they are. The conviction and transformation He longs to bring to all of us come next. The way of Christ is the only one that leads to life, but we still love those who don’t walk it. If we get just that one thing right, everything else will generally fall into place. That doesn’t mean it will be easy—especially in the context of a culture that rather vehemently disagrees with us and is increasingly willing to use the coercive power of the state to punish disagreement—but this is what’s right, and that’s our call. The way of Christ is the only one that leads to life, but we still love those who don’t walk it.

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