PreachingToday.com: We all know that homosexuality is a culturally and politically charged issue, but you chose to do a 3-part series on it, why?
Jim Nicodem: In part because of what you just said. It's a very culturally charged issue. We know that people are facing it with friends, or hearing about it in the news. This is an issue that's not going to go away. We want our people to be able to think biblically about some of the important issues that we face in our culture. And it struck me that the longer the church puts off the conversation, the harder it's going to be to talk about it because it's going to become a very adverse climate in which to try to present God's truth. So now is the time to sort out what your church believes and where you hope to go on this issue.
What was your overall goal or goals for the series?
I had two major goals. First, I wanted to teach what God's Word says about homosexuality, and our response to people who are struggling with sexual identity. It used to be that everybody knew that the Bible says homosexual behavior is wrong, but now one of the greatest challenge to this position is coming from within the circle of those who call themselves evangelicals, people who are saying, "We've misread the Bible on this, the Bible doesn't say homosexual behavior is wrong; you need to read it in its context and it says something different." So we needed to take a look at what the Bible says.
How do we have frank conversations about what God's Word says about difficult subjects and yet still keep our front door thrown open wide?
Second, I wanted to lay the groundwork for ministry to people in the LGBT community. We are the church that welcomes people who are exploring the faith, no matter what their background. So we wanted to discuss how do we love people who are struggling in this area of their life, How do we make sure that we have the biggest welcome mat possible in front of our church door that says no matter what the issues are that might separate us, we want you to come and investigate a relationship with Christ?
How was this 3-part sermon series received? What kind of feedback did you get—positive, negative, people storming out? How did that go?
You never really know what's going on inside of people. I heard a pastor say once they didn't call their doctrinal position of the church "what we believe" but rather "what we teach," because he said you can't guarantee what people choose to believe even though you teach certain doctrines. Same with an issue like this. Do people have a biblical understanding of the topic now that we have taught it? Time will tell. Has there been a heart change? How do you measure heart change? How do you measure whether people are open and loving toward those who hold a different position or who come struggling in this area. I hope that we have both a biblical understanding, and that there has been a love for people in the LGBT community that has been cultivated by this.
I will say there was no negative response. Activists never showed up at our church door to disrupt our services. We had some concern that there might be those who would be angry that we say the Bible teaches that homosexual behavior is wrong. On the other hand, at the other end of the spectrum there might be those who would be angry with us because we're talking about loving people who have a gay orientation, even acknowledging the fact that there is such a thing as a gay orientation out there that Christ followers may struggle with. So we realized we could make people at either end of the spectrum angry, but I didn't sense any resistance at all. At the beginning of the series I said something like this: "Please stay through the whole series, listen to every sermon completely, don't get angry at any point and turn off your hearing. Don't stomp out of here deciding never to come back. Hang in there until you've heard everything that is said.
So did you get any kind of positive response, especially from people who are members or regular attenders?
We got a lot of that. A lot of people who said they appreciate that our church doesn't shy away from difficult issues. In the final message of the series I talked about how to balance love and truth. I had a teeter-totter on stage and we put a huge weight on one side that was called truth, and said, "Some of you want to beat the drum for what the Bible teaches against homosexual behavior. It's in there. It's in Scripture. However, if the only thing you hold to is truth, you're going to drive people away who struggle with this sort of behavior." On the other side we put this big weight called love and we said, "Because some of you have friends or loved ones who are gay or because you want to be as open as we can possibly be as a church, you might favor love over truth and want to ignore that there has got to be a balance between love and truth." Many people responded by saying, "Yeah, we just appreciated the way that Christ Community tackled it as well as the balance between love and truth."
We noticed that you look at homosexuality through the lens of God's big story, the metanarrative of the Bible. Can you walk us through how you did that and why you think preachers should take a similar approach?
Well, we had three weeks in the series so the first week we looked at homosexuality from the standpoint of God's big story. The second week we did an interview with someone who had struggled with homosexual behavior, and it was a fairly honest, very frank conversation. We let the parents know ahead of time it was going to be PG-13, and yet we encouraged them to have kids middle-school and above come and listen to it. We thought that the issue needed a personal face, so the second week we were giving it a face. This was a real live person who has struggled in this area. Then the third week we covered what our response to homosexuality to people from a gay orientation ought to be, and that was balancing love and truth. Also, in the third week we looked at four categories of people from the gay community. Just as not all straights are alike, not all gay people are alike. We looked at those who are activists. How do we lovingly and truthfully respond to gay activists? Then we discussed how to respond to those who are the LGBT community but don't claim any relationship to Jesus. Third, what do you do with those who say they are followers of Jesus but are living out a gay lifestyle? And lastly, what do you do with those who are sitting right here among us and are struggling with issues of sexual identity and desiring to walk in sexual purity and wondering am I welcome here in this church?
Going back to the first week, what we did is we walked through the gospel—Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration—in light of homosexuality. We started with creation. And this is a huge issue to address: Are people created gay or does something happen that throws things off kilter? We looked at Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 and we came away concluding that God's design, his creation design, is for heterosexual sexual relationships. Complementary is built into people. God created men and women, and when he brought the first couple together it was a man and a woman, and this was a reflection of who God is, that God is a 3-in-1—God, he's diversity in unity. So this sexual relationship that is the epitome of a human union is between two diverse beings—one male and one female. Complementary runs all through the creation accounts. That's where we started.
Then we looked at the fall and we recognized the fact that homosexual behavior is an offshoot of living in a sinful world. People can struggle with a gay sexual orientation even if they don't act on it, because we live in a world where things have been twisted from God's original design. We looked at passages in Leviticus in the Old Testament and looked at Romans 1 in the New Testament to show that in both Testaments, God's Word condemns homosexual behavior.
Then we looked at redemption, the fact that this is one of the things that Christ has come to save us from. Paul acknowledged the fact that in the church there were people who had previously been in gay relationships and now had been washed and had been sanctified by the blood of Christ, and Christ had redeemed them from that.
We concluded by looking at restoration. What is the go forward, how do we build healthy relationships, how do we help people who are struggling in this area?
I can understand why there was a positive reaction. You obviously put a lot of time and effort into going through that and preaching the topic thoroughly over three weeks.
It's interesting you should say time and effort because beforehand people were saying, "You're going to give three weeks to this? Oh my goodness, you're going to stretch it out." I said, "Well, actually, it's not stretching it out, it's going to be hard to cover this in three weeks." In fact, the two sermons that I preached were both about an hour long, which is significantly longer than I usually preach and I asked for people's patience ahead of time. I said, "You know, we really did want to make this a 4-week or a 5-week series, but in order to get it in in three weeks we're just going to ask you to give us a little more time because there is so much important material to cover."
In light of some of the changes in our culture regarding sexuality, and in light of the Supreme Court taking on the case of same-sex marriage, what advice would you give for preaching on this topic?
If you don't preach on it now, it's going to become harder and harder to preach on it later. So I would say make sure that this gets on your sermon agenda soon. It is critical to bring balance to it, because if you try to cover it in one week you'll probably either leave out the biblical prohibitions, or you'll hit the prohibition side and people will feel that it's very unloving. You've got to be able to weigh in on both sides of the equation. You've got to give folks a positive, here's what we do next, here's an appropriate response that ought to come out of this.
I would encourage pastors who are wrestling with this to get ahold of some biographies, of people who have come out of the gay background and are walking either in sexual celibacy or have even seen a change of orientation, and read what they have to say. Christopher Yuan's book, From a Far Country, is a great book. Wesley Hill, his book, Washed and Waiting is incredibly vulnerable, and he talks from the perspective of someone who considers himself to be a "gay Christian" not gay in behavior but gay in his orientation and now choosing a life of celibacy because he believes that acting on that orientation would be wrong. Rosaria Butterfield would be a third person that from a biographical standpoint. She was radically gay prior to coming to Christ, but through reading Scripture and talking through the Bible with a Presbyterian pastor in her town came to Christ. Her book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, a tremendous book, chronicles the story of a total reorientation of her sexuality.
So in my preparation I spent literally hours in conversation with people either over coffee or on the phone who could help me understand their own struggle in this area. People on both sides of the fence who felt like they were leaving this in their past as well as those who continue to struggle in this area. I had some very illuminating conversations. I think you need to do your homework and need to talk to real people and need to dig into what Scripture teaches and not take this lightly.
So do you think you covered homosexuality enough for your church?
One of the things we struggle with now is not turning this series into a something I can check the box or cross it off my list of topics I need not cover again. We can't have that mindset. This is a series that I hope laid the foundation to greater ministry with people from the LGBT community. So we're still trying to figure out what that means. Just a few weeks ago we had a couple visitors, a lesbian couple raising one or two kids. They wanted to know, would they feel welcome here? I know they're going to go check our website and they're going to look at past sermons and they're going to see that we did a series on homosexuality and they're going to hear that we don't believe that a marriage between a man and a man or a woman and a woman is biblical. Rather than letting them find that out on their own I just decided to step right into it, and I said,
You want to know if you're going to feel welcome? You're going to find that what we teach, especially about marriage, is going to be contrary to the lifestyle that you've chosen. However, having said that, there's not a week that goes by that I don't preach on issues that are contrary to the way people are living. For goodness sake, I even preach on issues that are contrary to the way I'm living, and I'm holding my life up to what God's Word says the standard is. So everybody's toes get stepped on around here. That's just the nature of God's truth. If we agreed with and lived everything God's Word taught, we'd be perfect people. So what you're going to find here are people who are struggling to apply God's Word to their lives, and everybody, no matter what their area of struggle is, is welcome. You're going to sense all sorts of love.
They were very appreciative of that. Now, here's the reality. The flip side of that is I talked to the person who had invited them afterwards, and she reported back to me that that conversation with this lesbian couple had been very meaningful. However, two or three weeks later they decided, they wanted to find a church that promotes their lifestyle. They could easily find a church like that, so they didn't stick. My heart broke because I was hoping, God, may your love keep them here long enough to hear the truth about a relationship with Christ. So that will be the ongoing tension, how do we have frank conversations about what God's Word says about difficult subjects and yet still keep our front door thrown open wide?
Jim Nicodem is founder and pastor of Christ Community Church in St. Charles, Illinois.