Homosexuals and the Church
Will we offer hope?
By Bob Davies (originally published in Moody Magazine, May 5, 1994)
John Paulk will never forget the 1986 Gay Pride Parade in Columbus, Ohio. A well-known female impersonator, he was riding in the back of a red Mustang convertible dressed in a white linen suit and blond wig.
"Candi, we love you," a man yelled. "You're the most gorgeous drag queen in Columbus." John smiled and waved.
Suddenly, John heard chanting and screaming ahead and spotted a small crowd of people waving Bibles over their heads. Some held signs with such messages as "God hates fags" and "Turn or burn."
"Why don't you hateful people leave us alone? We're not hurting you," John thought, as an eerie sickness gripped his stomach. Then another thought struck him: "Who would want to follow a God like the one they're displaying?"
Six months later, a pastor who had befriended John at the print shop where he worked invited himself to John's apartment. Although John suspected the minister was coming to talk about God, he consented.
That night, they prayed together as John committed his life to Christ. He soon left his homosexual lifestyle as he became deeply involved in the church. Today, John and his wife, Anne (a former lesbian), live in Portland, Oregon, where he is preparing for a career in Christian counseling.
Though John still occasionally struggles with temptations and memories of the lifestyle he left, with the help of God and his Christian community he is well on his way to wholeness. Thousands of other men and women --all of them previously involved in homosexuality - have experienced similar changes in their lives. And almost all of them say that it was a group of Christians, demonstrating genuine love and concern, who made the difference.
Half the Gospel
"The church of the 1990s must decide if it wants to meet the relevant needs of todayÕs society," said Sy Rogers of Exodus International during a seminar at Park Avenue Baptist Church in Titusville, Florida, on ministering to homosexuals. "If your church is equipped to minister to the needs of your society, you will be relevant; if not, you will be irrelevant."
In Matthew 28:19, Jesus tells His disciples, "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations." The word nations means "people groups." Today, the homosexual population is among the last of the unreached people groups. And this people group even includes some who are in our churches.
Stories of those struggling with homosexuality are rarely as sensational as John PaulkÕs. Often, those who struggle are sitting quietly in the pew on Sunday morning, not involved in the homosexual subculture or a homosexual relationship. They hurt alone as they experience the internal chaos of conflicting desires.
"Almost 100% of people who come into my office have a church background, but they couldn't find help for their same-sex attraction within the local church," says Rick Hughes, director of Eleutheros Ministry in Winter Park, Florida.
Hughes is attempting to reverse that trend. When he speaks at conferences on the subject, he is often met with indifference and intolerance. Once, he wanted to conduct a short seminar on homosexuality for a local congregation, but the pastor refused.
"We don't have that problem here," the pastor said. Unfortunately, he was unaware that three of his church members, as well as someone on his staff, were in counseling at Eleutheros for their homosexual tendencies.
Churches that do realize the need to address homosexuality are often confused about how to handle a problem that has become so emotionally and politically charged. Homosexuality is tearing apart many denominations across the country. A growing number of conservative denominations have pro-gay groups that attempt to promote a theology that affirms their homosexual activities. Even some conservative Christians are faltering in their convictions as they discover homosexuality among family members and church friends.
"Homosexuality is the divisive issue of the '90s," says author and speaker Joe Dallas, who directs Genesis Counseling Services in Orange, California. And, he believes, many congregations are presenting only a "partial gospel" to men and women who are involved in gay relationships.
"Homosexual behavior is pronounced unbiblical, but no one offers a solution," Dallas says. "We cannot preach against a particular sin without offering an alternative." Dallas compares this situation with the pro-life movement, whose leaders have discovered the effectiveness of offering practical help --such as crisis counseling and emergency housing for pregnant women --in addition to saying, "Don't kill your unborn child."
Waging the battle
Some Christians have turned to politics to stem the growing international homosexual-rights movement. Mary Heathman has felt the tension throughout Colorado over Amendment 2, a state constitutional amendment designed to prevent homosexual-rights ordinances. As director of Where Grace Abounds, a redemptive ministry to homosexuals in Denver, Heathman has heard angry remarks from both church members and pro-gay leaders as they tangle over this amendment, which was passed by voters but later overturned in the courts.
"Church people get into politics for various reasons," Heathman says. "Some are very loving and don't lose sight of the individual, but others are fighting the battle with the world's mindset rather than remembering the spiritual warfare involved."
Heathman says one of the biggest problems with some legislation intended to combat homosexual rights is that it isolates one particular sin. "If we're going to be balanced, we need to be talking about sexual sin in general, not just homosexuality."
Joe Dallas remembers how the fight looked from the other side of the fence. Ten years ago, Dallas was a homosexual-rights activist and a student minister at a pro-gay Metropolitan Community Church in Southern California. "The gay churches are full of men and women who know better," Dallas says. "But they feel they have nowhere else to go. And nobody has ever shown them convincingly that there is a way out of this particular sin."
Few evangelical Christians, Dallas adds, are willing to "stop and listen for a moment to a homosexual's pain." The pro-gay church movement, which offers loving acceptance of both the person and his or her behavior, is an attractive alternative to some members of the homosexual community who perceive the evangelical church as judgmental and "homophobic."
Dallas says that too few conservative churches acknowledge the high price paid by many homosexuals who become evangelical believers. Suddenly these men and women are confronted with the reality of leaving close friends, long-term partners, a supportive community, and perhaps even a gay-related job or career to follow Christ. And too often they get no sympathy from church friends who think they should "just repent and be done with it."
Jeff Konrad still remembers the anguish of leaving his homosexual partner almost 10 years ago. "I ached physically from all the emotional turmoil. But several Christian heterosexual men made themselves available any time of the day or night. I'm alive today because those guys loved me."
After receiving Christ, a homosexual desperately needs church support to stay free from sin. A conversion experience doesn't immediately erase homosexual desires. As with any Christian who struggles with temptation and who bears the consequences of a troubled past, accepting Christ is only the first step in the journey toward wholeness.
Many who have been away from the homosexual lifestyle for years still struggle with temptation, though usually less frequently. Many get married and identify more with heterosexuals, but that doesn't guarantee complete freedom from occasional homosexual desires.
The majority, who remain single, have the added struggle of remaining celibate. That's why continued encouragement and accountability from the church is so important to keep them on the path toward wholeness.
Breaking the sound barrier
Churches can provide a supportive atmosphere by being willing to break the silence that surrounds this issue in many evangelical congregations. When Ken Korver, associate pastor of Emmanuel Reformed Church in Paramount, California, realized that several men in his singles group were dealing with homosexuality, he confronted the issue head-on from the pulpit Korver preached a sermon on 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, where the apostle Paul identifies homosexual behavior as sin, but a sin that can be forgiven. "This church is a place where broken people are welcome," Korver told his congregation. "But we are not to remain in brokenness; we must move forward into God's design." Then he requested anyone fighting homosexual temptations to talk to one of the pastoral staff.
"We let people know we'd walk with them through the process of healing," Korver recalls. Soon a group of ex-homosexual men were meeting weekly.
Then Korver took the healing process a step further: He set up a mentoring program in the church, holding three-hour training sessions for straight men who wanted to better understand homosexuality. The names of 50 "graduates" of these sessions were made available to the former homosexuals, who could request an accountability partner to befriend them.
"Forming this kind of mentoring relationship is essential to getting beyond an 'ex-gay' mind set," Korver explains. "When the men who are overcoming homosexuality are accepted by other men in the church, a huge amount of healing occurs."
Other congregations throughout the country have had similar success in ministering to homosexual men and women. During the past two decades, Church of the Open Door in San Rafael, California, has earned a widespread reputation as "the church where homosexuals find healing."
This fellowship of 100 adults located 20 miles north of San Francisco is a spiritual home base for Love In Action, one of the oldest ex-homosexual ministries (founded in 1973). LIA runs a two-year discipleship program that attracts participants from around the world. Many become permanent members of Open Door, having left churches where they felt no support for resolving their sexual identity issues.
One recent program graduate, an attorney and former bank vice-president from Virginia, stood in front of the congregation to extend his thanks for their support. "This is a church where you don't have to whisper the word homosexual," he said. "I know my life will never be the same because of the love I've experienced here."
At the beginning of each program, members are introduced to the congregation in a special evening service. Afterward, church members are encouraged to come forward and commit to pray for one or more ex-homosexuals. Program leaders recognize that many church members want to offer support, but don't know how. So prayer cards are distributed, giving specific suggestions: Send the program member a birthday card, invite him to your house for dinner, phone him periodically to offer encouragement, include him on a family outing, have him bring a potluck item to your house for a holiday meal.
At Discovery Church in Orlando, Florida, church members, elders, and church counselors are trained to minister to ex-homosexuals by praying for them and providing strict accountability. "We generally set [those struggling with homosexuality] in a same-sex ministry group with two or three trained people," says elder Barry Johnston. "The leaders offer encouragement, practical help, and friendship. This also affirms their gender identification in a non-threatening way.
"We require strict accountability, too. In a secure environment, we ask about their thought life, their reading materials, the movies they see." The leaders also ask them, "Are you staying free and moving in the direction God created for you?" Then they place them in the mainstream of the church by discreetly and wisely directing them into a place where they can minister.
Beyond formal ministries, churches can often minister to ex-homosexuals by changing attitudes and becoming aware of the sensitivities of those struggling with homosexuality. "I've been around people in the church who have made jokes about people who are gay," says Brad Grammer, who directs Face-to-Face, a ministry to homosexuals at First Evangelical Free Church on Chicago's North Side. "It really hurt, because they didn't know I have struggled with homosexuality."
Grammer says that another way churches can help is to offer discipleship relationships. He believes that if the church is functioning as it should by offering honest, encouraging relationships to those struggling with homosexuality or any other sin, there may be less of a need for formal groups. People also need more information about homosexuality to help them understand those who struggle with the issue, Grammer says.
Mona Riley, wife of Open Door's senior pastor, says there is potential for a great spiritual harvest in the homosexual community, but "it's an unwanted harvest. We don't want to reap it. Christians aren't sure if they want to spend eternity with these people." Revival has to happen in the church first, she says, "before it's going to happen in the gay community."
Riley sees a "hardness in the heart of the American church" toward people who have been involved in homosexual behavior. "We need to be trained in compassion," she says. "We have judged this particular sin to be worse than every other, but I don't see that in the Scriptures."
Leaders of ex-gay ministries around the country recognize hidden barriers that prevent churches from embracing those struggling with homosexuality. The foremost one concerns AIDS, says Chuck Therrien, director of ReCreation Ministries in Manchester, New Hampshire. Church members fear contracting the disease by casual contact, such as touching an infected individual or sharing restroom facilities. Despite assurances from health experts, these fears persist.
Therrien says church members also fear that former homosexuals will molest their children or seduce young people into the homosexual lifestyle. "But why would they recruit someone into a lifestyle they despise and are desperately trying to overcome?" he reasons. Therrien also points out that most adult homosexuals are sexually drawn to other adults, not children. And though such abuse is unlikely, churches should already be equipped to prevent any kind of child sexual abuse, homosexual or heterosexual. Such precautions should ease the fears of church members and leave them free to minister to whoever walks through the church doors.
Church leaders who have taken the risk of venturing into this type of ministry have seen their churches affected positively. "Our people are proud that we are a church that is true to the Bible, but living it out in progressive ways," says Ken Korver. "We are not compromising truth, but the congregation is thrilled that we are living out grace."
There is also widespread support at Church of the Open Door for the Love In Action program. "Our people are excited to be on the cutting edge of this issue," says senior pastor Michael Riley.
The staff of these churches and specialized ministries to homosexuals insist that they are not doing anything different or unusual from the ordinary discipleship offered in any evangelical church. "All you need to know is how to love and speak the truth," Joe Dallas says, "and you've got all the tools necessary for ministry to these people."
John Paulk, the former female impersonator, agrees. After becoming a Christian, John moved to California to be come part of LIA. He attended Church of the Open Door and found unconditional support, especially from the men in the church. "Heterosexual men befriended me, prayed for me, and invited me into their homes for fellowship. They treated me with genuine respect and affection. It's really that simple. They loved me into wholeness."
Bob Davies was executive director of Exodus International (Seattle, Washington), a worldwide coalition of redemptive ministries to men and women overcoming homosexuality This was the time when Exodus was Biblically orthodox.. He is also co-author, with Lori Rentzel, of Coming Out of Homosexuality (InterVarsity Press, 1994). Melody Schiaing, a free-lance writer from Titusville, Florida, and Karen Beattie, associate editor of AFA Journal, also contributed to this article. Used with his permission.