As society embraces same-sex couples, a Texas conference equips the faithful to respond.
SAN ANTONIO — NBA player Jason Collins comes out as gay and makes the cover of Sports Illustrated.
The Boy Scouts of America votes to allow openly gay boys into its ranks.
The U.S. Supreme Court gives federal recognition to same-sex marriages.
FIRST IN A SERIES
As homosexuality gains increasing acceptance in America, Christians can’t escape the headlines.
But how should members of Churches of Christ — who believe God reserves sex for marriage between a man and a woman — respond?
Here in the Alamo City, the Northside Church of Christ
hosted a recent “Peacemakers Conference.” The focus of the two-day conference: equipping the faithful to show Christ’s love to everyone — including those who experience same-sex attraction — while maintaining strong convictions on the Bible’s teachings.
“It seemed to me that this would be a great way to move beyond the headlines and the rhetoric that’s out there and talk about how we can truly ‘be Jesus’ to people,” said David Allen, preaching minister for the 1,000-member Northside church. “Somehow, Jesus was able to (minister to) broken people in ways that made them feel valued and loved and not condemned.”
The conference provided helpful insight “to get the ball rolling for churches to consider how to address an issue that is not going away,” said Mark Abshier, preaching minister for the MacArthur Park Church of Christ
in San Antonio.
Gary and Donna Hoyack (PHOTO VIA FACEBOOK.COM)
“I was reminded that this issue cannot be approached one-dimensionally, that is, to declare it to be sin but go no further,” Abshier said. “Homosexuality is sin, and that is a starting point. But the Great Commandment and the Great Commission compel us to do more.”
Too often, Christians touched by same-sex attraction — either personally or by a family member — avoid talking about it, said Donna Hoyack, whose husband, Gary, serves as a Northside elder.
“There is such fear and stigma associated with same-sex attraction or a gay child or spouse,” she said. “When same-sex attraction can be treated as a reality that can lead to sin, the stigma can be removed, and same-sex attraction can be addressed in light of truth and in a loving way.”
“God is good. Gays are bad. Read your Bible.”
“I kissed a girl and I liked it. Then I went to hell.”
“Homosexuals are possessed by demons.”
The signs flashed across the big screens in the Northside auditorium.
“These are real signs that real people have carried around in the name of Christ,” Sally Gary told more than 200 conference participants. “This is the perception of Christianity.”
It’s a perception that must change before Christians can have “any voice about God’s design for our sexuality,” said Gary, director of CenterPeace,
an Abilene, Texas-based ministry that provides support and resources for people who experience same-sex attraction.
This summer’s national meeting of Campus Ministry United,
which is associated with Churches of Christ, also featured sessions on relating to those who struggle with same-sex attraction.
“If a Christian wants to make a positive impact on the LGBT community, they should make a gay friend instead of holding up a sign,” said Wes Woodell, a Missouri church planter who attended the campus ministry meeting at Harding University in Searcy, Ark.
“If a Christian wants to make a positive impact on the LGBT community, they should make a gay friend instead of holding up a sign."Wes Woodell, Missouri church planter
Teenage members of Churches of Christ perceive judgmental attitudes as hampering the fellowship’s spread of the Gospel, according to the 2012 Church and Relationship Study
by Oklahoma Christian University’s Intergenerational Faith Center.
In their book “unChristian,”
prominent evangelical researchers David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons reported that young people ages 16 to 29 frequently see Christians as anti-homosexuals who show contempt for gays and lesbians.
“And they’re often right,” Allen said of that perception. “We have to start changing that narrative if we hope to show people the love of Jesus.”
Across the nation, some churches and ministry leaders are taking steps to change that narrative:
• The Landmark Church of Christ
in Montgomery, Ala., sponsors the Barnabas Group,
a support group for individuals who experience same-sex attraction and their family members.
The group offers a safe place to discuss struggles, said Tony Adcock, a Landmark member who with his wife, Jo, facilitates the meetings. Group leaders do not claim to change anyone’s sexual orientation, Adcock said, although he believes that’s possible in some cases.
“We spend a lot of time in prayer, but it’s not to ‘pray the gay away,’” he said. “I feel like if we can get into the work of the Holy Spirit in these individuals’ lives, then they can change, even if that desire is still there and they choose to become celibate.”
Campus ministry students sing during a weeknight devotional at the Crossings Church, a St. Louis-area Church of Christ. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
• A half-dozen campus ministry students
at the Crossings Church
— a Church of Christ in Wentzville, Mo. — talk openly about same-sex attraction, campus minister Kerry Cox said.
“They have to fight temptation, just like any of our heterosexual people do,” Cox said. “It’s just like struggling with lust.”
Among those students: John Copeland, who said the support shown by fellow Christians gave him the courage to change his lifestyle, including breaking up with his boyfriend.
But choosing to live as God intended was not easy, Copeland said.
“I had to sit and watch the man that I loved cry as I told him I was leaving him,” he said.
• At the Northwest Church of Christ
in Chicago, minister Patrick Odum preached a sermon titled “Jason Collins and Jesus Christ.”
In the sermon, Odum encouraged his congregation to view people as much more than their sexual identity.
“It seems to me that most of our churches have had a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy concerning individual members while letting the current political discourse about gay marriage frame our public statements,” Odum said.
“I think churches need to be thinking about how to reframe the discussion in terms of sexual morality,” he added. “We also should be talking about love, compassion, support and grace for our brothers and sisters who are dealing with same-sex attraction.”
• The board of trustees
of Members of Churches of Christ for Scouting
(MCCS) vehemently opposed the decision to allow openly gay Scouts.
However, the national association is urging
church-sponsored Scout units to “stay the course” and “continue to be a positive witness for Christ in the world of Scouting” rather than leave.
• By reaching out to people
“at the margins of society,” the Agape Church of Christ
in Portland, Ore., naturally connects with people who identify as gay and lesbian, minister Ron Clark said. Agape also partners with same-sex organizations in addressing abuse and trafficking in Portland.
The church works to create an environment where anyone can come and feel loved, accepted and able to wrestle with personal issues, Clark said.
“At Agape, we state that we have a conservative view of the Bible, but all people are welcome,” he said.
At the conference, Sally Gary described experiencing same-sex attraction growing up in the Tenth and Broad Church of Christ
in Wichita Falls, Texas, and later as a student at Abilene Christian University.
Through counseling, Gary came to understand a multitude of influences on her sexual identity. Her circumstances included less-than-perfect family dynamics, but she stresses that no one factor determines sexual orientation and that each person has a different story.
“We haven’t even begun to fully explore the impact that biology may have on our sexuality,” she said.
Gary credits God’s redemptive power with helping her reconcile and heal her relationship with her family and pursue the Lord’s will in her life, even though she still struggles.
“I’m kind of like the woman at the well. She couldn’t go back to the village and keep her mouth shut,” said Gary, 51, who details her personal journey in the book “Loves God, Likes Girls.”
Stories such as Gary’s illuminate the complexity of same-sex attraction and the importance of avoiding overly simplistic answers, said Allen, the Northside minister.
“One of the most important points,” he said, “was the need for us to spend a great deal of time listening and asking questions rather than attacking and condemning people.”
Sally Gary shares her story of experiencing same-sex attraction as minister David Allen listens. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)