Panel discusses how churches should address issue of homosexuality

FORT WORTH—Baptist educators, a Texas pastor, an expert on the law and the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s ethical and moral concerns entity shared their perspectives on the church’s response to the issue of homosexuality during a panel discussion following the close of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention annual meeting, Nov. 11. The panel was held in MacGorman Chapel on the campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

The panel, moderated by SBTC Director of Communications and Ministry Relationships Gary Ledbetter, agreed the church’s failure to speak both to the culture and its members has contributed to the normalization of homosexuality and the rapid acceptance of same-sex marriage in the culture.

Criswell College President Barry Creamer said the trajectory of this issue at this moment has the Bible-believing church judged to be on the wrong side of history rather than the “wrong side of truth.”

Nonetheless, said Creamer, “we have to make absolutely certain the basis of all we do in responding to the government or being obedient to proclaiming the gospel is rooted in my love of God and my love for my neighbor.”

While the gap between the church and culture is well acknowledged, there is a similar gap between the pulpit and the pew on this issue, noted Nathan Lino, senior pastor of Northeast Houston Baptist Church.

“Our people are desperate for teaching on these matters. We do not have to convince them to want to talk about these things,” Lino said.

“I think we pastors live in such a bubble based on our vocation that we are out of touch with the reality in which people live. They are immersed in these matters. … Yet no one is speaking truth to them in these matters nor teaching how to do truth well.”

Lino said homosexuality is personal for most young people: “They have homosexual friends. When we address the issue, they’re not hearing an issue, they’re thinking of their friend.”

“We haven’t done a good job training younger generations how to think biblically about sexuality,” asserted Evan Lenow, assistant professor of ethics and director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Seminary. He said the church has failed to give young people a scriptural foundation for human sexuality.

Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission in Nashville, said the church has been caught flat-footed with the rapid shift in opinion on the homosexual issue in part because of its mishandling of the Bible’s teachings on sexuality.

For a long time, Moore said, the church’s preaching on divorce was unbiblical, given that it was condemnatory. Divorced persons were viewed as “social pariahs,” he said. Then, he continued, the church “over-corrected” on the issue when divorce became normalized in the culture.

“The problem with divorce is not that it is shocking but that divorce is destroying a picture of the union of the church and Jesus Christ,” Moore said.

“The culture around us has changed its views on sexuality where sexuality becomes the highest good and the highest end of who someone is. When you add to it a narrative that views the sexual revolution in the same terms as the civil rights movement, you don’t have a church that is able to stand up and say, ‘Here is what marriage and sexuality are.’”

Lino agreed, saying the disconnect between the church and the culture has been building for a number of years.

“The gap between our people understanding where culture is and being able to appropriately address culture comes from a lack of proper teaching on the matter over the last 10 to 20 years,” Lino said.

Pastors need to give a more full understanding of the gospel as it relates to human sexuality, Lino said.

“It’s not just homosexuality that we need to be addressing. Homosexuality is a piece of a bigger pie,” Lino said.

“We speak against homosexuality just like we are supposed to be speaking against heterosexual premarital sex. We’re also supposed to be speaking against heterosexual extramarital sex. We’re supposed to be speaking about gender roles. All of these are the same matter. All of these are the picture of Christ and the church.

“Our people are unprepared to deal with these issues in the culture because they don’t think of it along these lines. Until we start equipping them with a more robust gospel they’re not going to be able to address this in culture, and we are just going to fall more behind.”

Creamer noted that for a time the church was “supporting and undergirding cultural norms as if that were the communication of our Christian message and the gospel,” and as a result, many were treated as outcasts by the church.

“It wasn’t that they couldn’t be saved and come into the gospel; it was because they were outside of the norms of American behavior,” he said, noting the church needs to clean up its act when seeking to minister to individuals who are in some ways different than those traditionally served by the church.

“Our presentation of the gospel has in some ways been marginalized in this culture because we held on to some of those stereotypes and language in the same way we held on to racist language,” Creamer said, quickly noting, “Racism and gender identity are totally different issues morally in the world.”

There were those elements of the faith community that “attached their conservatism to the society instead of to the gospel,” Creamer said, insisting those in the church need to be more careful in their choice of words.

“It’s not a compromise of our commitment to the gospel to be more considerate about the way we speak about people in the culture who need to come to the gospel.”

Ledbetter asked the panel how pastors should respond when their religious liberty rights are threatened, as in the recent case in Houston when the city’s mayor subpoenaed pastors’ sermons and notes related to the city’s statute extending certain rights to gay and transgender residents.

Moore said church leaders would be wise in heeding the model set by the Apostles Peter and John, as recorded in Acts 4, who when they were told to cease preaching, refused.

“That’s necessary because the only way they could be obedient to Christ is to refuse to submit to that decree,” he said, explaining at times the state will ask Christ-followers to do things they might not agree with but that are within the “rightful authority” of the government to require.

“But then there are going to be those things that to obey the government is to disobey God,” Moore added, citing instances in which the government tries to dictate what is to be preached or asserts what is and what isn’t sin.

“We have to say to the government, ‘There’s a law higher than your law,’ and refuse to obey,” Moore said.

Moore said one of the more immediate issues in the area of religious liberty doesn’t concern churches but instead children’s homes, adoption agencies and colleges and universities.

“One of the biggest problems we are going to have is those agencies simply laying down, not even fighting for their religious liberty rights, which will then consign everybody else and future generations to a violation of conscience,” Moore said. These institutions need to be willing to face “some cost and some hurt,” he added.

Lino said he grew up in South Africa during apartheid as the son of a pastor. He recalled his father preaching against racism on Sunday mornings. Government agents would record his father’s sermons, even going so far as to come to his house and bully him because of his stance against the government’s racist policies.

“When we left South Africa,” Lino said. “I thought we left that behind.”

“The reaction of pastors to the government in those situations has to be very different than our reaction to culture. When culture is opposing us, it’s a lot different.”

Anticipating a day to come when legal protection for religious rights will no longer prevail, Lino said, “We have to resolve in our hearts that we are men of God, that when we surrendered to the call, we died to ourselves.”

“The government might think we are mercenaries, that we are in this for money, fame and power and that if they bully us we don’t want to lose those things, so we will give in.

“We are citizens of a Kingdom. The day is going to come that we will pay a price. And it’s going to get here a lot sooner than we expected.”

This tidal change in the culture will also impact the legal environment the church finds itself in, attorney Jim Guenther said.

“The constitution simply will not allow the government to interfere with the free choice of religious bodies in the selection of their religious leaders,” Guenther, who has served as general counsel for the Southern Baptist Convention for 40 years, told those gathered.

Yet Guenther noted the ongoing cultural confusion over gender roles and the societal redefinition of marriage complicates laws regarding discrimination.

“We’ve got a lot of untangling to do in this area. All the laws pertaining to marriage were rooted in the traditional notion that marriage was a relationship between one man and one woman. As its fundamental basis erodes, those laws are going to be in transition,” he warned.

Guenther prepared a question-and-answer document on the law, churches and same-sex attraction that was handed out during the event and is also available online.

When examining the church’s responsibility to stand for truth and also offer grace, Lino said, “To Jesus, absolute truth and loving your neighbor are not mutually exclusive,” adding there is not a third way.

“Silence is not an option; you have to stand on truth. We have to proclaim the gospel with courage from our pulpits,” Lino said, adding that pastors must proclaim a biblical gospel.

“The issue with homosexuals isn’t that they are homosexual,” Lino said. “The issue with homosexuals is that they are in need of Jesus Christ.

“The right gospel is not that the road to salvation for a homosexual goes through becoming heterosexual. The road to salvation for anyone from anywhere is to go directly to Jesus Christ.”

To watch the entire panel discussion, go to sbtexas.com/panel.

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