Pastoral Care for Lesbian & Gay Christians
A contribution to The Baptist Assembly: May 2013
Since September 1987 (from the age of 35), I have been working full time to provide pastoral care for lesbian & gay Christian people, most of that time under the ministry name of ‘Courage’ (my work is now referred to as "Post-Courage").
We all learn a very great deal through life’s experiences, over a period as long as twenty-five years; all the more so in our fast-moving world in which there is an exponential growth of knowledge in every area of life. Whilst the Bible itself does not change, nor does its principles or standards, our understanding of how the Bible is to be interpreted most certainly does, because our life experiences create a context in which we have to wrestle with the Bible’s teaching. Progressively, through prayer and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we hopefully come to a deeper and more spiritually mature understanding of its application.
Understanding the old paradigm
I became involved in this unusual area of ministry after many years of struggling with my own sexuality. In my early years, I would never have described myself as a gay man but rather as "a celibate Christian struggling to overcome homo-sexual attractions". I was young then. I felt deeply ashamed of my sexual orientation and had no self confidence. So I imbibed, unquestioningly, the traditional teachings of the church. When the Courage ministry was founded in 1988, in summary, this is how we understood homosexuality:
We believed that really there was no such thing as homosexual (or heterosexual) people: just men and women—made in God’s image—who handle their God-given sexual desires and need for relationship in godly or ungodly ways.
Unless specifically called to celibacy, the normal life anticipated for the Christian was that they would pray and seek God to meet a suitable person of the opposite sex, fall in love, and make a lifelong commitment, which we call marriage. This covenant relationship is given by God to provide us with love and companionship until the time when death parts us. Marriage, as Jesus taught (Mark 12:25) provides companionship for this life, as there will be no marriage or giving in marriage in heaven. Marriage meets the couple’s mutual desire for physical and spiritual union and gives opportunity to raise a family.
Divorce was frowned upon, although occasionally recognised as unavoidable in the event of a complete marital breakdown. Remarriage was regarded as wholly unbiblical and absolutely contrary to the will of God. For the Christian who struggled with homosexual attractions, the challenge of discipleship was to overcome, not give in to temptation. Even if it could be proved that a homosexual orientation is something you are born with, this would have made no difference to our position on the issue: we are all born sinners—but that never excuses sin.
It was recognised that some men and women fail to meet God’s standards and are guilty of fornication (a word usually used in our modern world to describe sex before marriage), or adultery. Then, comparatively rarely, some people were seen as guilty of deviant sexuality, expressed in homosexual sex, paedophilia, or even bestiality. Such practices were closely associated together in people’s minds as if they represented a continuum of decline into depravity. Consequently, homosexual relationships would never be discussed as if potentially acceptable, in any form whatever. Indeed, even to label oneself as gay was to align yourself with a hedonistic self-centred world view that is deeply idolatrous and anti-Christian.
These things were all sin, plainly taught so by scripture; to think otherwise was tantamount to fraternising with deceiving spirits. There was no possibility of ever acknowledging—as valid, precious or praise-worthy—genuine love and commitment that two men or two women can feel for one another, as deeply as any man and woman in love with each other—if that love found expression in a sexual way. At best this was "love gone bad". Worse than that: homosexual sex was judged as evidence of the most base and idolatrous lust pursued in defiance of God’s created order, prompting a reaction of revulsion and contempt. Indeed, even today such a reaction is almost required evidence of loyalty to Christ in some Christian circles. Homosexuality is contrary to nature, Christians believed.
For anyone caught in homosexual sin (or persistent temptation to sin), forgiveness was possible, provided that there was no question of considering that there might be any kind of legitimacy to such activity. This is why, in 2003, the proposal for Anglican priest Jeffrey John to be made a bishop, whilst still in a committed partnership with another man (albeit a non-sexual one) was considered so offensive to many Christians—because he would not repent by confessing that their former sexual relationship was sinful. Many conservative Christians believed that it was simply not possible to be gay and Christian, because the born-again experience would ensure that any such thoughts or behaviour were part of the old life, washed away in baptism. Indeed, some Christians believed that a person who practised homosexuality could not possibly be a Christian at all because, by definition (Roman 1:24-27), the fact that they were tempted by it or practised it was a clear sign that they had rejected God who had, in turn, given them over to such reprobate practices. Either that, or the former Christian had become apostate and was now beyond hope of salvation (Hebrews 10:26).
Practical Pastoral Application:
Homosexuality (and later the word heterosexuality) was a word coined by a German psychologist in 1869, as he sought to understand human behaviour better. Psychology has sometimes been regarded with suspicion among some evangelical Christians. As my pastor once commented, "Psychiatrists may be very good at taking you apart but not so good at putting you back together again." (My first experience of psychotherapy as I attempted to overcome my homosexuality, revealed to me that some psychiatrists had no better opinion of the Christian religion.)
In the 1970's and early 80's, it was considered quite a progressive thought to imagine that a Christian might actually experience a homosexual orientation, yet still be fully committed to Christ (and committed to celibacy of course). Gradually people became more willing to talk about homosexuality as an issue, although they would never talk to gay people to learn from their experience; any such conversation entered into would only serve the necessary purpose of sharpening one’s theological arguments against it. This was true for me too. But as I already knew, the endeavour to overcome was a lonely path and you had to be extremely careful who you chose to share your struggles with, lest you then be reckoned a danger to children or to the moral and spiritual well-being of the church.
In my personal experience, I had been exceptionally fortunate to encounter some excellent Christian counsellors in the early years of this journey who genuinely cared for me. But our understanding was always based on the paradigm just described. This is why I began my journey by seeking healing and deliverance. Having said that, whilst I always believed that God has the power to change me, I also decided that if He did not do so, a life of obedience to Christ was what I had committed to. Even in my twenties, I recognised that life is short, so to sacrifice the hope of enjoying the companionship of marriage was, I told myself, a small price compared to the suffering on the cross that Jesus endured for my salvation.
Throughout the years of the Courage ministry, we always focussed on Christian discipleship, in an attempt to ensure that we gave Jesus Christ central place as Lord of our lives. Overcoming homosexuality was a discipleship issue, we believed, and the loving, understanding, supportive community we formed was intended to be therapeutic in the sense that all communities have the potential to be, as well as providing practical support to overcome temptation. From the start, the ministry was an exciting venture. It caught the imagination of many and we never lacked enquiries. Indeed we received as many requests for help as we could possibly handle. We wanted to be absolutely committed to Christ and thereby at the cutting edge of ministry, to offer real hope for homosexual people—to overcome temptation and, by God’s grace, to be enabled to live a ‘normal life’.
The positive aspects of our early ministry years were that for most people who came to us we really did provide a loving, caring environment, supported by the local church, where people felt safe to be honest, open and be themselves. For those who failed, who ‘succumbed to temptation’, we offered understanding, grace and forgiveness, and determination to get up and start over again. But if people were to move on and get back into ‘normal life’ there had to be a time limit for their involvement in our community. We were not there to provide an oasis forever. New people constantly came in need of help, which meant that those who had come earlier needed to move on, with the expectation that they were now equipped to lead an overcoming life. But when they did move away from our exceptional level of support, the facts then became clear: however much devotion they had shown to following Christ, however much sacrifice they had made, essentially nothing had changed. They may have come to understand themselves and their faith a lot better, but their homosexual orientation remained as strong as ever and their longing for same-sex companionship and sexual intimacy grew rather than diminished—a factor made all the more poignant as more and more of their contemporaries married and raised families, receiving tremendous affirmation from Christian friends, as they do. Compared to others, it was hard not to feel a failure in their own eyes, and hard not to feel rejected by God. Gay people, after all, have to live with the personal impact of traditional Bible teaching on homosexuality every day, not just believe it when in church.
By the late 1990's, I had a deepening concern about the long term effects of our ministry, and others like ours. Many wonderful people who we had worked with were becoming severely depressed, even suicidal; many were losing their faith. Then, some years after leaving us, I discovered that a few former members had begun to think differently about their future, coming to a point where they decided that perhaps there was nothing wrong with being gay after all. Society was now seeing things differently. No longer was the general population so rabidly anti-gay; on the contrary, the subject was much more openly talked about and same-sex partnerships were beginning to be accepted. Meanwhile, far from offering any real and viable long-term hope, the church seemed (to society) only to condemn gay people, revealing an almost voyeuristic preoccupation with the sinfulness of sex, and a deep repugnance towards homosexuality in particular.
The great dilemma for us and the church as a whole was this: we believed that if we compromised our biblical standards in any way, we were letting the Lord down. We were opening ourselves to deception, even apostasy. We were starting to allow our values to be shaped by the sinful world around us, instead of the other way around, when we should be "salt and light". Whereas the modern world around us perceived us to be ignorant, prejudiced, sex-obsessed and above all anti-gay, harming vulnerable people by imposing upon them our warped religious views. This has become a terrible stumbling block to the gospel.
I believe it is inevitable in life, for true Christians, that sooner or later there will be major clash of essential values between the way of Christ and the way of the world. But the battleground is surely between the values of the Kingdom of God and the values (or lack of them) of the world? Whereas a lifelong internal battle, where we see our own personality and sexuality as our worst enemy, creates a conundrum that induces a self-inflicted paralysis. The most worrying thing for us was that increasingly we saw that "the joy of the Lord", a biblical promise to all followers of Christ, eluded most of us. We just felt a total failure. So many of us were feeling deeply disappointed, let down, isolated by the church and, worst of all, rejected by God. We resented the hypocrisy of what apparently seemed to be a two-class system in operation, in which heterosexual people were seen to be real Christians, whereas those of us who are gay were always viewed with suspicion. For many this brought into question the entire credibility of the gospel.
I had to ask myself whether, in our zeal to do the right thing before God, we were missing something? We had talked endlessly about the need to change, but the one thing we adamantly refused to change was our understanding of the issues. And this was all because of a particular, and I would now have to say myopic, or worse still obscurantist, interpretation of scripture. Every generation has to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. We would not have had to look far to discover other sincere Christians, including some eminent theologians, who took quite a different view of these matters. We need only have been open to learn from others. The fact that they came from a different tradition did not automatically mean that they were agents of the devil, conspiring to deceive us all.
Eventually I had to make a choice—to follow my gut instinct and look outside the box or risk continuing to set people up for disappointment and, most tragically, loss of faith. From the outset, we had sought to build people’s faith and impart a sure and certain hope in Christ. Whereas it now seemed that we were making apostates out of some of Christ’s most sincere followers, and driving them away.
When a homosexual person makes themselves vulnerable in confession, sharing their deepest feelings as they seek pastoral support, it is hard to imagine a more damaging response if genuine love between gay people is treated as perverted, deceptive, even demonic in origin, with the likely outcome that they are headed for eternal damnation unless they repent. Indifferent or contemptuous attitudes made in response to the life experiences of gay people expose an arrogance that is not in keeping with the work of the Holy Spirit. In spite of this so often being the case over the years, amazingly, even after being shamed, ridiculed, treated as deceived and a danger to others, many gay Christians have not lost their faith but gone on to grow spiritually and now have so much to offer today.
Seeing the tragic outcome of our dedicated pastoral work over the long term forced me to recognise that the only people doing well out of the hundreds we had met were those who accepted their homosexual orientation as a gift of God. Those who dared to believe that God could provide them with a suitable partner and then got on with life, work and worship without allowing the excoriating views of others to deter them, did well. Time and again I saw their sense of hopelessness come to an end; their joy returned and many have become valuable servants to the church and society. This was the kind of fruit I had expected to see from the ‘ex-gay’ ministry process; but I never saw it anywhere in the world.
A growing trend
Startling events corroborating this discovery came sharply into focus in June this year, when Exodus International (a 37-year old coalition of 120+ ex-gay ministries based in the USA) summarily closed down, after making a well-publicised public apology for all the damage they have done to the LGBT community.
By the turn of the millennium, after seven years of wrestling with the difficult questions, I realised that God is happy to bless same-sex partnerships. This is His provision for a gay person’s need for lifelong companionship and intimacy, just as God provided heterosexual marriage for straight people. I am not alone in reaching this conclusion. An increasing number of high profile leaders such as Steve Chalke, Brian McLaren and Rob Bell have all published similar conclusions.
What biblical support is there for such a view?
This is not the place for a detailed review of the "clobber passages". But I would just like to mention here that I believe Jesus gave us a clue to understanding these things better—when he declared, to the astonishment of those around him, that "Some are eunuchs because they are born that way . . ." (Matthew 19:12). Castration had never been a Hebrew practice; Jesus was simply recognising the fact that some of us are ‘born that way’, and therefore unable to marry (in the traditional heterosexual sense). Eunuchs were honoured by God in the Hebrew Bible (see Isaiah 56), and reviewing some of the roles they took in those ancient societies, in the Old Testament accounts, it is not difficult to recognise from the context that probably many of them were gay. Not difficult for a gay person to see anyway!
I have been greatly reassured by Jesus’ words, "The Holy Spirit will lead you into all truth" (John 16:12,13). Following the evidence of years of pastoral experience, I began to realise that when we recognise and accept the truth about ourselves, however disagreeable or doctrinally dubious that may seem to others, the way of integrity produces lasting good fruit. Also, committing myself to prayer, I began to see the familiar passages in a new light. Paul champions the gospel in Romans 1:16,17 declaring "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe . . . For in the gospel, a righteousness from God is revealed. A righteousness that is by faith, from first to last." He then goes on to observe the tragedy of what happens to those who refuse to worship God or give Him thanks. Nowhere in that passage does Paul address the pastoral needs of gay Christians; clearly his concern was to expose what happens to those who refuse even to believe in God, never mind seek His will. He wrote about the consequences of wilfully treating God with contempt. For a closer approximation to Pauline pastoral concern, it is worth checking out 1 Corinthians 7 where, included among a number of instructions about marriage, Paul writes, "It is better to marry than to burn" (vs 9). It is hard to imagine that Paul could be so perceptive in recognising the needs of straight people, yet remain indifferent to the needs of gay people.
Jesus said "By their fruit shall you know them" (Matthew 7:15-23) and this was how he taught us to judge people, according to the gospels. Since I first published my change in convictions about homosexuality, I’ve had no regrets about changing my pastoral approach. The good fruit has been consistent and long lasting.
All thanks and praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
© Jeremy Marks (Post Courage); updated August 2013
I have written in much more detail about my pastoral experience in "Exchanging the Truth of God for a Lie" (available from the Courage office, and Amazon) for those who are interested in further study.
A number of other books that give a scholarly and credible account of what the Bible really has to say about homosexual relationships are:
"Permanent Faithful Stable" by Jeffrey John (DLT)
"Reluctant Journey" by George Hopper
"The Children Are Free" by Revd Jeff Miner & Revd John Tyler Connoley
"The Gay Gospels" by Keith Sharpe
Another excellent book I would strongly recommend, when considering pastoral care, is "The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the pain of growing up gay in a straight man’s world" by Alan Downs, PhD.
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Although Courage has finished (as of September 2012), the new Two:23 Network (http://two23.net/) is running quarterly meetings to support LGBT Christian people. However, I am still available for one-to-one consultations, running workshops and seminars, and offering pastoral care.