Friday, April 05, 2024

Too Hot to Handle: The Garment Stained by the Flesh

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: IC, it’s been a long time. I’ve been on the road, and so have you, and we’ve both had family stuff to deal with. The easiest way to handle the unexpected interruption in our schedules has been to recycle a bunch of four-year-old posts, some of which were genuinely worth revisiting. Even when I got back to my normal routine, I didn’t reach out for a while because I was looking for something certifiably hot that we could lob back and forth. And you know, I think I just may have found it.

So how about this: Should your local church host a small group for Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction? Pros and cons in one, two, three ...

Not Catching the Vision

Immanuel Can: Sorry … I’m not “catching the vision” here; what, precisely would a small group of this kind be for?

Tom: Oh my goodness, mutual support, of course. Having your personal experience validated is absolutely necessary to a balanced Christian life. A small group would enable people struggling with the same problem to talk endlessly about the same problem, causing ... oh, I don’t know ... the same problem. You can’t possibly expect the rest of the world to understand how you feel, can you?

IC: Okay, now you’re being ironic, Tom … just in case anybody didn’t know.

That was what my question was seeking to draw out, though. And the way you’ve answered it, is not the answer to your question obvious?

Tom: Well, sure. And maybe my reaction is too snarky. Let’s dial it back a bit. The reason I threw it in front of you is this: the website where the question originated ended up basically saying, “I think you should allow it. It’s probably a good idea.” And I really wasn’t feeling that way about it, so I thought I’d bounce it off you.

Less Than Ideal

IC: Well, the author of the article writes:

“Ideally, however, I would love to see Christians who struggle with SSA in a ‘regular’ small group — not one specifically for people with SSA — and feel comfortable sharing their struggle. Everyone in the group would simply be seen as a believer who struggles with some sin. Everyone in the group would accept everyone. Everyone would pray for and encourage others. They would ‘all be one,’ just as Christ prayed (Jn. 17:21).”

“Ideally”? Why “ideally”? We must ask ourselves what this author feels is “less than ideal” about the idea of an SSA (same-sex-attraction) group. I can see that he says that unity is one idea that’s bugging him, and this would be why he refers to John 17:21. But is that really all? We don’t worry about unity issues in the case of other groups, like Young People’s Programs, Women’s Coffee Hour, or Men’s Pancake Breakfasts. Why would it actually be “better”, from his point of view, if non-SST (same-sex-temptation) people were involved than if they weren’t? That’s what I would want to ask him first.

Tom: That’s certainly a very valid point. But I’m going back to something I learned a very long time ago, and I learned it from you. Back in the day when we were in our early twenties and living together, I had a crush on a girl that just wasn’t going to end well no matter how hard I tried to make it work. And because I really wanted it to end well, I constantly talked about it to you. And you got really annoyed at me and became very blunt, and refused to discuss it at all. You said something like this: “You’re trying to make it real by talking about it.”

Your statement stuck with me because it was fundamentally correct. My efforts to deal with my feelings about this girl were made far worse, not better, by constantly discussing her. I only inflamed the problem by bringing it up. That’s worth considering when we talk about same-sex attraction.

Struggling with SSA

IC: “AA meeting, this Monday at 7, in Elmo’s Bar, 5th Street.” What’s wrong with that announcement?

Tom: Well, you’re introducing temptation into the very situation that is purportedly designed to help you deal with temptation. Perhaps that’s too obvious. And yet ... not.

IC: The people that the article’s author, Alan Shlemon, is concerned about are very specific. These are not people who are wanting to be homosexual. They are, according to him, wanting NOT to be. He writes:

“Keep in mind what is meant by a ‘Christian who struggles with SSA.’ This refers to a professing believer who experiences romantic attraction to the same sex. This Christian, though, does not consider their SSA to be good or healthy. They do not identify as gay or queer. They do not call themselves a ‘gay Christian.’ Rather, they believe their SSA is a result of their sinful nature. They know that to satisfy their SSA — either through sexual fantasy or through homosexual behavior — is to commit sin. They want to obey Scripture, follow the commands of Christ, and never succumb to their same-sex sexual temptations. That is why this person is referred to as a Christian who struggles with SSA. They are struggling and fighting against their same-sex sexual temptation to sin.”

Okay, Alan. We hear you. You’re saying this is not a “conversion therapy” or “deprogramming” group imposed by outside authority. This is something done at the behest of the SST sufferers themselves, by their wishes, to help them achieve what they want, not what anybody else might want for them. And they want out. That’s what you’re claiming, right?

But if what these people want — as you assure us, Alan — is NOT to succumb to temptation, then we really need to ask how to best help them to get the thing they really want to get.

Revisiting Revoice

Tom: In a way, this seems to be the same issue that gave rise to the Revoice Conference controversy among Presbyterians. Revoice’s mission, as stated, is “Supporting, encouraging, and empowering gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.” In other words, they wanted to be identified as people who struggle with SSA and get together and talk about it a lot. And many Christians felt that was unwise. Here’s how Tim Challies put it:

“The conference is advocating the position that sexual orientation is a core part of human identity so that we can speak of ‘gay Christians’ — Christians who profess faith in Jesus Christ while maintaining a homosexual orientation or identity (but also a commitment to celibacy). The deeper questions are along these lines: is it sinful to experience same-sex desire and attraction, or only to act on it? Is there even a legitimate category of ‘sexual orientation’ so we can say that some people are oriented toward members of the same sex while others are oriented toward members of the opposite sex? Is our hope for same-sex attracted Christians that they pursue gay celibacy or that they struggle to put their same-sex attraction to death? The Revoice conference has drawn all of these concerns to the surface and taken a stand on them through its use of words and language.”

Perhaps that gets all the issues on the table. Starting a regular, small group in a local church is kind of like having your own mini-Revoice, but arguably less controversial. And here we are again.

IC: If, as Mr. Shlemon assures us, these folks are viewing their own impulses as misdirected and sinful — and, in fact, want to escape that trap — then how are we helping them by assembling them into an identity group, as if their sin were defining their identity to us, and then encouraging them to air their failures to each other? This is what I mean about this making as much sense as holding an AA meeting in a bar. What we’re really doing, then, is preening ourselves on our tolerance while simultaneously undermining their self-declared intentions to get free. If we love them, and want them to have what they want, why would we do that to them?

Putting it to Death

Tom: I absolutely agree. Look, I think we have to see this the way scripture sees it. Having a sinful impulse does not make you part of an identity group of some sort. Scripture does not contemplate the specific origins of our evil impulses beyond the traditional “world-flesh-devil” trifecta, nor does it contemplate complex solutions that vary from evil desire to evil desire and require endless discussion. Wicked impulses — whether they be a lust for violence, a lust to be controlled by mind-altering substances, or a lust for sexual congress with the wrong sort of people — are not to be coddled. They are to be put to death. You don’t put something to death by gathering weekly or monthly to chat about it with other people who haven’t yet put it to death either.

IC: No. And personally, I don’t want to join some kind of “failure-sympathy” group for all my sins. I want help in being strengthened, supported and encouraged in my efforts to overcome my faults and lapses. I really, really don’t want a bunch of people assembling to reflect on how hard it is for me to be, say, humble, or honest, or pure in my thoughts. Any such group would not help me forward one bit, but would assuredly contribute to my failures. How much more, though, if the very source of my failures were represented in the group itself … as in, if I were in a sympathy group for my pride, and I was tempted thereby to pride myself on explaining how hard I had worked this week to conquer pride, or to pride myself on reporting to others how my subtle and vexing my lapses in pride were. Such a group would be likely to make me much more arrogant and self-absorbed, not less.

Sin does not get better by being obsessed over.

Two Different Problems

Tom: This problem is not going away for local churches, and I think we need to distinguish between two very different sorts of people who are pushing it. On the one hand, there are LGBT activists who are using the notion of support groups and conferences for struggling Christians as the thin end of the wedge. They are the organizers and financiers and marketers of this push. The end game for them is not the Bible study or conference or group. The end game is full normalization: homosexuals, lesbians and trans people practising their lifestyles and fully accepted as members of your local church.

On the other hand, there are Christians who are genuinely struggling with their desires and have been deceived into thinking that talking about their problems with other people with similar life experiences may actually support and help them. After all, that’s how they see the world handling things when people are struggling with mental illness, spousal abuse, or alcohol addiction. We sit around in a big circle and talk about it. What’s so scary about that, they wonder.

IC: Christians today do not much reflect on the sin of tolerance. The Western world tells us it’s a virtue, and a virtue in every situation. But the truth is that tolerance is only sometimes a virtue: when it is toleration of the inevitable faults and failings of other human beings, for example. But to tolerate wickedness is not virtue but arrogance, corruption and cowardice. And the Lord himself despises it. Now, these people of whom Alan Shlemon speaks have, by his account refused to tolerate their own sin. They want out. They’ve done the right thing. But in his “tolerance”, Mr. Shlemon seems to want to put them right back into it, by identifying them with it and creating environments agitating to their particular temptations.

Tom: It seems to me that the answer to both groups from the local church should be a firm and resolute no, but how we deal with them may differ a little.

Struggling Christians and False-Teaching Intruders

IC: How would you see that going, Tom?

Tom: Well, it would certainly require discernment to distinguish them, but I think that’s something we can count on the Holy Spirit to provide. Certainly the NT anticipates us having to draw those sorts of lines. I am thinking of Jude, for example, where there is one class of individuals who are “grumblers, malcontents, following their own sinful desires.” These are people who have an agenda to remake churches to their own liking in accordance with their own lusts and addictions. They like to redefine words, and they love to play the victim. Then Jude speaks of a second class of individuals who are simply weak and need help. They doubt. They are confused. They lack self-control. But they are not teaching wickedness.

The one category requires firm, unequivocal rebuke. Their arguments must be contended against. Their equivocations and redefinitions of words and attempts to exercise control over the local church are not to be tolerated. When you catch them in hypocrisy, shameful practices and demonstrable lies, you “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” If necessary, you send them packing and let God judge “those outside”.

The second category really need help, not rebuke. In such cases, we are to “have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh”. Cautious mercy is the watchword for this group.

So it’s two different approaches, and discernment is certainly required. But I have no doubt the churches will see plenty from both groups.

IC: Indeed so. If we need to know the difference, how do we decide which kind of group we’re dealing with?

Tom: Doubters and weak people are uncertain. False teachers and people with well-developed agendas are dogmatic. Doubters and weak people are embarrassed about their sin and want to be forgiven. Activists are proud of their sin and want to be applauded. Doubters and weak people are afraid of offending God and fear he may reject them. False teachers worship a different god, and they don’t mind telling you all the ways in which he’s different. Doubters and weak people come to you alone. Activists always have a posse. Weak people want to live their lives differently, but keep slipping. False teachers want you to live your life differently, while theirs stays exactly the same. At least those are my observations.

Seeking a More Effective Response

IC: That’s a nice summary, and gives us several ways of checking. Can you suggest what would be a healthy way of the church responding to someone if they want to get free of same-sex temptation? Even Alan Shlemon seems to recognize that a whole-church approach is “ideal”, though he goes on to opt for the “small group” strategy in the article.

Tom: There are a couple of ways those needs could be met, I think, for people who are genuinely looking for help. It doesn’t necessarily have to be through a round of special church meetings. If it’s a matter of not understanding that in Christ we are new creations, and that “the old has passed away”, any elder and his wife could sit with a struggling person and discuss the truth that our identity is Christ. If it’s a matter of needing to talk with others who have struggled with besetting sins and learned to manage their outward responses to their desires and to exercise better control over their thought lives, there is no reason to limit a small group to a single type of addiction, or to discuss all the gory details of past temptation and failure. The same biblical principles apply to all forms of temptation, and most of them involve fleeing it rather than playing around with it.

What is important, I think, is that we not pull away from struggling people. They need to be loved. But they need to be loved in a way that will help them, not in a way that will make things worse for them. And probably they really need to be loved most by the people who are the least likely to physically attract them.

Maybe that all sounds kind of lame and tame ... and just maybe it should. What I’m trying to avoid is an LGBT-friendly version of that old saw about the evangelical divorce support group where — by sheer coincidence, of course — you just happened to meet your new wife.

Except you don’t go to that church anymore.

Funny how that works.

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