Navigating gender identity and sexuality in your ministry
One of the very complex and difficult topics that we are increasingly hearing about on our call-in line concerns the subject of homosexuality, same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria.
It used to be that when we had calls on these subjects, it was mostly from parents whose teens or adult children were coming out to them for the first time. Increasingly, we hear from parents whose young children are confused about their gender identity, pastors who are unsure of how to navigate these issues in their churches, as well as questions about the increasingly hostile environment for counsellors and ministry leaders to counsel people struggling with these issues. So-called “reparative therapy” practices are not permitted by most professional counselling organizations and there is growing pressure across the country to bring in legislation that would forbid anyone from offering this kind of assistance.
It would be fair to say that we are wrestling with these issues even within our own ministry team. We imagine that, if this has not yet impacted your churches and ministry settings, it soon will. What are some answers and resources to help you navigate these matters? Let me give some brief thoughts and a few resources to consider.
I think, before anything else, it is important to define the issues. I believe there are two major considerations we need to grapple with: The first is theological and the second is pastoral.
First, do we have a clear theology of sexuality and marriage? These are huge topics, but let me point to a couple of experts I think help us focus clearly on the essentials.
When answering the question, “What is our theology of sexuality?” Dr. Mark Yarhouse says:
“Christians understand sexuality to be a gift from God, an integral part of what it means to be human. Genital sexual activity is the means of procreation, which not only brings about life and reflects the divine act of creation but also is the basis for family life in all cultures throughout history. But sexuality is more than genital sexual activity. A Christian understanding of human sexuality is that it reflects who we are as much as or more so than what we do. Our sexuality instructs us of our need for God as we experience in our sexuality a longing for completion in another (eros). Indeed, a Christian understanding of sexuality focuses more on affirming this longing for completion as something that exists regardless of marital status or sexual experience; it is fundamental to what it means to be human.”1
I recently attended an event with Dr. Preston Sprinkle in which he defined marriage as follows:
“Marriage is the union between two sexually different persons. It’s not as if marriage is between two people, and oh, by the way, we Christians have always believed that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Even that doesn’t capture the historically Christian view. It’s not as if sex difference (male/female) is an arbitrary add-on to a Christian view of marriage. Rather, sex difference is an essential part of what marriage is. Marriage by definition is the union between two sexually different persons and not simply the union between two humans regardless of sex difference.”2
We need a robust theology of what sexuality and marriage were designed for. I would suggest a positive, God’s design view of each topic. Rather than primarily operating out of the zone of what we should not be doing, we should focus on what God does positively want for his children. If we have not yet done our homework as leaders and teams, we should take these steps.
Second, we then need to think through how we respond pastorally to those who struggle with these issues. I suggest we are going to encounter a few types of people:
- those who openly embrace being gay or transgendered and want people to celebrate this with them;
- those who are related to or acquainted with the first group and struggle to be as accepting/celebratory as their loved ones would like them to be (parents, siblings, friends, etc.);
- those who experience same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria and are struggling to reconcile this with biblical standards.
The response of leadership to each of these groups will be quite different. The first will be the most fraught with tension as we work to apply biblical truth with grace. Those in the second group need understanding and equipping – but let me tell you that they are hungry for help and direction and will often be quickly tempted to turn to gay-affirming answers if we do not step in and help them find compassionate, yet biblical and gracious ways of responding. The third group needs a community that is not afraid to engage with their real concerns and questions so that they can find a source of connection for meaningful relationships that do not involve compromising the values they want to hold onto, but are tempted not to.
Some of the issues that arise pastorally will include issues such as: church membership, church leadership, appropriate areas of service (especially youth and children’s ministry), taking communion, and baptism. It is important to think through the implications of how we would respond to all of these issues.
You can find a paper here from The Center for Faith, Sexuality and Gender that can help you think through where your church might land on some of these matters.
These are challenging topics that are only becoming increasingly complex. As we seek to love people and still hold to biblical values, we need to grapple with them. If you want to talk any of these matters over with our in-house counsellors, feel free to call us at 1.888.5.CLERGY (1.888.525.3749).
1 For a deeper understanding, see this statement in its context here.
2 A larger discussion of this topic can be found here.
Wendy Kittlitz is the vice-president of counselling and care ministries for Focus on the Family Canada. Wendy is also the Clergy Care program director.