All the participants of the panel on homosexuality at The Gospel Coalition Council meetings agreed that we have entered one of the most difficult challenges to a gospel-centered approach to evangelism. The reason is not that the center of the Christian gospel has changed, but the center of the cultural gospel has changed. That center for many is the freedom to be GLBT and to be approved.
Which means that whether we want to make this a frontline issue or not, increasingly it is. As one of the panelists said, “There is no demilitarized zone in the homosexual debate.” Pastors must address it. In fact, virtually everyone who communicates with mainstream cultural folk must address it.
The argument against Christianity today is not epistemological but moral. Christianity is rejected not because it is badly argued, or untrue, but because it is evil. And it is evil because it opposes homosexual practice. The panelists agreed that, at least in major metropolitan areas, the issue of homosexuality ranks near the top of the reasons people reject Christianity, along with the problem of suffering and the exclusive claim that Jesus is the only way of salvation.
It is almost impossible to express a compassionate disapproval of homosexual practice without being demonized. But this is not an entirely new situation for the church. On the one hand the state of our culture seems to have changed with lightening speed. On the other hand it may not be as new as it seems.
Consider what it must have been like for Christianity to take root in a totally pagan and debauched culture in the first century. Sometimes we are presented with an overly positive picture of the progress of the faith. We read of how the church was courageous and loving, and how the empire was won over. But here is what it looked like along the way. This is from the mid-first century in pagan Asian Minor (1 Peter 4:3–5):
The time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.
This is not pretty. The gospel is landing with power in some lives. So much power that they not only believe in Christ for justification, but their life styles are radically changed. They stop doing certain things. “Sensuality, passion, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties . . . a flood of debauchery.” Believing in Jesus means they don’t do that any more.
The result? Not respect and tolerance, but slander: “they malign you.” That is where we are today in regard to homosexuality. And Peter’s counsel to the maligned Christians who do not approve of the “flood of debauchery” around them is:
Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings.” (1 Peter 4:12–13).
Peter also held out hope that if we do not grow weary in doing good we would see saving effects in the lives of people around us:
Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:12)
The panelists were sober-minded about the future. One of them suggested that if the cultural battle is lost on the nature and meaning of marriage then there will never be a complete cave-in in this country. Twenty percent of the people will always oppose same sex marriage, and many will go to prison.
Churches will be faced with new and unheard of cases of discipline. Suppose two so-called “married” men hear the gospel and one of them believes and comes to your church. Will you council “divorce” and moving out?
One final observation was made from the TGC panel: One of the most powerful things we can do is fold into our churches men and women who have same-sex attraction and surround them with a bigger vision of life and love and relationships that make it possible for them to flourish in families and friendships. These stories may be one of the most authenticating messages for the Christian gospel.