What Do You Do When … ?
Answers to Ministers’ “Sex Questions”
Pastors face specific challenges as they minister to people with sexual sin. This article explores contemporary “sex” questions along with biblical principles that illuminate how pastors need to think, feel, and act regarding all people whose lives have been complicated by sexual sin.
By George Paul Wood
Pastors1 face many challenges. One of them is how to minister to and with people where sexual sin — whether their own or others’ — has complicated their lives. In preparation for this article, the editors of Enrichment solicited questions from Assemblies of God pastors about specific challenges they face in their churches related to sexuality. Other articles in this issue address their biblical and theological questions.2 Richard R. Hammar addresses their legal questions. (See sidebar, “Legal Answers for Sexual Issues in the Church.”
This article addresses the practical questions pastors asked by outlining five biblical principles that illuminate how we need to think, feel, and act in specific circumstances.3 Their questions reflect the changing sexual practices and attitudes of Americans, which include Americans who self-identify as “Christians.” A recent study by the National Marriage Project illustrates the extent of the changes in both practice and attitude.
The Changing Sexual Practices of America
“In middle America,” the National Marriage Project reports, “marriage is in trouble.”4 As proof, the report cites declining rates of marriage and growing rates of divorce, cohabitation, and nonmarital childbearing. In 1960, 69.3 percent of all American males age 15 and older were married, and 65.9 percent of all American females. In 2009, the corresponding percentages were 53.7 and 50.6 (63). In 1960, 1.8 percent of all American males aged 15 and older were divorced, and 2.6 percent of all females. In 2009, the corresponding percentages were 8.5 and 10.8. A couple marrying today has a 40- to 50-percent lifetime chance of separation or divorce (70, 71).
The number of couples who cohabit increased fifteenfold, from 439,000 in 1960 to 6,661,000 in 2009 (75). “More than 60 percent of first marriages are now preceded by living together, compared to virtually none 50 years ago” (76).5 In 1960, 9 percent of children under age 18 lived with a single parent, while 88 percent lived with two married parents. The corresponding percentages for 2009 were 25 and 66.7 (89,90). In 1960, unmarried women accounted for 5.3 percent of all live births; in 2009, they accounted for 40.6 percent (91).
Attitudes about sexual practices are also changing. Drawing on studies of high school seniors, the National Marriage Project reports that in 1976, 38.9 percent of girls and 37.9 percent of boys felt that people will have “fuller and happier lives if they choose legal marriage” rather than singlehood or cohabitation. In 2009, the corresponding percentages were 39.6 for boys and 29.8 for girls (101). In 1976, 33.3 percent of girls and 41.2 percent of boys felt that nonmarital childbearing is either “a worthwhile lifestyle” or “not affecting anyone else.” In 2009, the corresponding percentages were 55.8 and 55.9 (102). Finally, in 1979, 32.3 percent of girls and 44.9 percent of boys agreed that couples should cohabit before marriage to “find out whether they really get along.” In 2009, the corresponding percentages were 66.3 and 68.9 (103).
Gallup has found that Americans’ moral evaluation of homosexual behavior has reversed itself in the past decade. In 2001, 53 percent of Americans felt that gay and lesbian relationships were “morally wrong” and 40 percent felt they were “morally acceptable.” In 2010, the corresponding percentages were 43 and 52. “Americans’ support for the moral acceptability of gay and lesbian relations crossed the symbolic 50 percent threshold in 2010,” Gallup concluded. “At the same time, the percentage calling these relations ‘morally wrong’ dropped to 43 percent, the lowest in Gallup’s decade-long trend.”6
Religious affiliation affects both sexual practice and attitudes about sexual practice. For example, according to the National Marriage Project, religious affiliation reduces the chance a couple will divorce in their first 10 years of marriage by 14 percent (73). According to sociologist Bradley R.E. Wright, “The differences between Christian actions and those of the [religiously] unaffiliated are not insubstantial. And what’s more, the more committed Christians are to their faith, as measured by attending services, the more likely they are to ‘practice what they preach.’ ”7 Still, there is considerable room for improvement in Christian behavior. After all, if 50 percent (one-half) of first marriages in America end within 10 years, a 14 percent reduction in the divorce rate means that 36 percent (one-third) of religiously affiliated people divorce within 10 years of their first marriage. One-third is better one-half, but it’s still far short of God’s design.
The relevance of these statistics to pastoral ministry is clear: Increasingly, pastors minister to people (in their congregations and communities) and with people (on their pastoral staffs and ministry teams) where sexual sin — whether their own or others’ — has complicated their lives.
How should we minister in these circumstances?
The following five biblical principles illuminate how pastors need to think, feel, and act regarding all people.
First, the guiding principle of ministry — and of life — is love. God is love (1 John 4:8). The gospel is the story of His love for us in Jesus Christ (Romans 5:6–8). The fruit of His Spirit dwelling within us is love (Galatians 5:22,23). The Great Commandment requires us, in response to God’s love, to love Him with our entire being and our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:34–40). This commandment summarizes the moral teaching of Scripture (Matthew 22:40). And it extends to “enemies” (Matthew 5:44) and “sinners” (Galatians 6:1,2), not just those who love us (Matthew 5:43–48).
Second, the priority of the gospel: Both John and Paul emphasized the priority of God’s loving action to our loving reaction. “This is love,” John wrote, “not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Paul wrote: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8,9). God’s love is prior to ours in time: He loved us before we loved Him. God’s love is also prior to ours in importance: Without His grace, our good works are fruitless and our boasting vain.
Too often pastors reverse the priority of the gospel. Explicitly and implicitly, verbally and nonverbally, pastors teach people that they must reform their lives before God can do anything with them. This message is legalistic (putting law before grace) and moralistic (putting human effort before divine empowerment). But rules are powerless to change people’s lives. Only God can do that. “For what the law was powerless to do … God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man. … in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us” (Romans 8:3,4). This righteousness is both forensic and real. In other words, God declares us righteous on the basis of Christ’s atoning work and increasingly makes us righteous through life in the Spirit (8:4,9).
Third, the process of godliness: In the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16–20), Christ charged His followers to “make disciples.” Pastors often take this commission as their marching orders for evangelism, but it involves much more. For Christ, disciple making meant “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
Too often pastors assume that people in their churches know both what Christ commanded and how to keep His commands. Pastors also assume that greater obedience to Christ’s commands comes quickly and easily. Pastors need to make neither assumption. Rather, they need to assume that people in their congregations do not know either what Christ commanded or how to keep His commands. And pastors need to assume that increasing obedience is an ongoing process in every believer, with both forward progress and frustrating setbacks being part of that process. Ministry to people does not stop with altar calls and new member classes. Disciple making is a lifelong ministry of patient teaching.
Fourth, the practice of integration: Though the Great Commission speaks of obedience to Christ’s commands, discipleship involves more than religious observance and rule keeping. Christ critiqued the Pharisees and teachers of the law for their religiosity, saying, “You have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness” (23:23). And He critiqued the Pharisees for their externalism, saying, “On the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:28). True discipleship is both Godward and humanward, both outward and inward.
The Great Commandment (Matthew 22:34–40) integrates these dimensions into a seamless whole. First, it integrates love of God, neighbor, and self. True love is spiritual, social, and self-directed. We cannot love God without also loving our neighbors (1 John 4:20,21). And we must love our neighbors in the same way we love ourselves (Ephesians 5:28,29). Second, the Great Commandment integrates the components of the self. Christ calls us to love God with “all [our] heart and with all [our] soul and with all [our] mind” (Matthew 22:37). Mark 12:30 includes the phrase “with all [our] strength.” In other words, love is a matter of head (belief), heart (emotion and will), and hands (behavior and relationship).
Discipleship, then, means a head that knows, a heart that desires, and hands that do God’s will in every area of life.
Fifth, the gentle presence: In their disciple making, pastors need to reflect the gentleness of Jesus Christ. He said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30). This beautifully describes the necessity, ends, and means of discipleship.
Discipleship to Christ is necessary because life without Him is wearying and burdensome. The end of discipleship to Christ is “rest.” But the means He uses to disciple us are “gentle and humble.”
Paul echoes the language and themes of Jesus’ words in Galatians 6:1,2. “Brothers [and sisters],” he wrote, “if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
Both passages emphasize gentleness and presence. Christ is “gentle and humble,” so His followers need to disciple one another “gently.” Christ invites His followers into His presence, “Come to me.”
We disciple one another by yoking ourselves to one another — “Carry each other’s burdens.” Too often, pastors attempt to disciple people by preaching strong words from the pulpit. That is not the way of Jesus Christ. He got up close and personal, but ever so gently.
Paul words — “Watch yourself, or you also may be tempted” — provide a salutary reminder that pastors are sinners, too. Pastors minister as sinners, not just to and with them. Knowing this, pastors need to follow the Golden Rule for ministry: Minister to others who have sinned in the same way you would have them minister to you if you have sinned (cf. Matthew 7:12).
Application to Specific Questions
How do these biblical principles illuminate the specific challenges pastors face as they minister to and with people when sexual sin — whether their own or others’ — has complicated their lives?
The questions Assemblies of God pastors submitted to the editors of Enrichment fell into three broad categories: attendance, ceremonies, and participation.
Attendance describes a person’s low level of involvement with the church and its ministries. To use an economic analogy, attendees are consumers of spiritual goods, not producers. They derive benefit from Sunday worship services and other programs, but they do not add value to the church by further participation through membership or ministry. Enrichment received four questions dealing with attendance issues:
- How do you deal with an openly promiscuous teen that still attends youth services?
- What do you do with a couple who divorces, both still attend the church, and one spouse remarries and attends the same church with the new spouse?
- Which bathroom should a transgendered person who attends your church use?
- Should I allow the adopted child of a lesbian couple to enroll in our church daycare or school?
We need to reframe these questions. Each assigns people an adjective: promiscuous, divorced, remarried, transgendered, or lesbian. Underlying each adjective is an evaluation: sinful.8 We can reframe the question by substituting the evaluation for the adjective: What do we do with a sinful person who attends our church?
Should we not rejoice? Christ loved “sinners” (Romans 5:8). He was their “friend” (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34). He entered the world to “save” them (1 Timothy 1:15). And we are His “ambassadors,” commissioned with “the ministry of reconciliation,” proclaiming “the message of reconciliation” to sinners (2 Corinthians 5:18–21). Should we not rejoice when people whose lives have been complicated by sexual sin attend our church or its ministries? Does not their attendance offer us opportunities to love them, to share the gospel with them, and to disciple them?
And should we not love them? If promiscuous teens, divorced and remarried couples, transgendered people, and homosexuals do not know we love them, they will not listen to us. They do not care how much we know until they know how much we care.
Do not misunderstand me. God’s standard for sexual behavior is clear: fidelity within marriage and chastity outside of marriage.9 The question is, once a person or a couple has violated that standard, how do we minister to them? We cannot even begin to do so unless we love them as Christ does.
With the right attitude, we can move on to the other four biblical principles. Regarding questions 1 and 2: Have we shared the gospel with the promiscuous teen and divorced-remarried couple? Have we taught them both what Christ commands regarding sexual behavior and how to obey Him? Have we addressed the false beliefs, emotional needs, and behavioral patterns that drive their promiscuity and relational brokenness? And have we done so in a gentle way that encourages them to trust their sexuality to Christ?
Christ’s ministry of forgiveness and healing to the “sinful woman” who anointed His feet (Luke 7:36–50), the divorced-remarried-cohabiting Samaritan woman (John 4:1–26), and the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53–8:11) model how we need to minister to people when sexual sin has complicated their lives. Jesus defended them against their accusers, named and forgave their sins, and blessed them to live a new life.
In my experience, when approached this way, most people — whatever their sin — respond positively. They feel lost, broken, and ashamed about the state of their lives. They want a pathway to forgiveness and practical guidance so they do not repeat their bad choices. A few people respond negatively regardless of how we approach them. These people tend to self-select out of the church and its ministries.
Regarding question 3: There are larger spiritual, moral, and psychological issues for us to deal with than a transgendered person’s bathroom preference. Transgendered people should use the bathroom of whichever gender they present, unless their use of it causes serious problems for others. Their attendance at events such as men’s or women’s retreats generates a different level of challenges.10 In such cases, keep in mind that transgender is an “umbrella term covering a number of sexual and gender variations,” including “cross-dressers (or transvestites)” and “transsexuals,” i.e., people who have undergone sex-reassignment surgery and are undergoing hormone-replacement therapy.11 While it would be inappropriate for a cross-dressing man to attend a women’s retreat, it might not be inappropriate for a transsexual woman. Leaders need to address two questions: Will participation in this retreat help move her toward greater holiness, or will her participation be disruptive to the discipleship of other members of the group?
Regarding question 4: Christ welcomed and blessed children unconditionally (Mark 10:13–16). Should we not do the same? Or do we hinder children coming within Christ’s sphere of influence because their parents are involved in a sinful relationship?
Pastors lead their congregations in a number of religious ceremonies, including water baptism, Communion, weddings, child dedications, and funerals. Enrichment received the following questions about rites:
- Should the pastor dedicate an infant born out of wedlock when the mother is attending the church and does not plan on marrying the father of the child? What if the couple is heterosexual or homosexual and cohabiting and desire to have their child dedicated?
- In the case of in vitro fertilization of a single woman, should the church dedicate the child?
- If a person has a sex change and desires to marry, should the church marry this couple?
- Should a pastor agree to do a funeral for a homosexual relative of church members?
As pointed out earlier, in 1960, 5.3 percent of all live births were to unmarried women. In 2009, the rate was 40.6 percent. Increasingly, pastors will minister to both women and men who have brought forth children out of wedlock, as well as to their children. What should we do?
On the one hand, Christ welcomed and blessed children unconditionally, saying: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mark 10:14). On the other hand, child dedication presumes that parents intend to raise their children in the “training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). These two issues may come into conflict for pastors when sexually immoral parents ask their pastors to bless their children.
Regarding question 5, pastors need to keep the following things in mind. First, pastors need to always welcome and bless children as Jesus Christ did, regardless of the sins of their parents. Sex outside marriage is a sin; the child that results never is. Perhaps pastors need to develop a rite of child blessing alongside a rite of child dedication. The latter would take the parents’ intentions into account; the former would not.
Second, child bearing and child rearing out of wedlock are not always sins. For example, a woman whose child is the product of rape is morally blameless. Rather than judging her, we need to honor her for bringing her child into the world under such difficult circumstances. A single person, whether female or male, who adopts a child does not sin. Should we not dedicate children who are born or reared under these circumstances?
Third, we need to take repentance into account. We need to include people in the rites of the church who repent of their sins. In the case of question 5, repentance means either marrying the child’s other parent or ceasing to cohabit and engage in sexual intercourse. Since, from a biblical point of view, marriage is not an option for a homosexual couple, repentance involves noncohabitation and chastity. Should we not dedicate the children of parents who have repented in these ways?
Question 6 is difficult because the ethics of in vitro fertilization and embryo implantation are inherently complicated.12 The single status of the woman in this scenario complicates things further. On the one hand, she does not commit fornication. On the other hand, the manner whereby the sperm necessary for IVF is obtained raises red flags. We need to address the beliefs, emotional needs, and behavioral patterns that are driving her to seek to be a parent in this way. If she rejects your counsel, obviously, you need to welcome and bless the child that results. Given the debate surrounding IVF, the issue of whether a pastor can dedicate the child in the customary manner is a question each pastor must answer individually. The crucial question one must answer is whether some form of repentance is called for, and why.
Question 7 presents unique challenges to contemporary pastors. As noted above, transgender is an umbrella term covering everything from cross-dressing to transsexuality. This question deals specifically with transsexuals, i.e., people who have undergone sex-reassignment surgery and hormone-replacement therapy. The Bible does not explicitly address transsexuality since the necessary surgery and therapy were medically impossible in the era when the Bible was written. The Bible does say, however, that God created humanity as male and female (Genesis 1:27; 5:2; Matthew 19:4). It prohibits cross-dressing (Deuteronomy 22:5) and promotes gender-distinct appearance (1 Corinthians 11:2–16). Furthermore, the Bible also prohibits homosexual behavior (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:26,27) and blesses heterosexual marriage (Genesis 1:28,29).
What the Bible says about cross-dressing and homosexuality seem most relevant to transsexuality. The appearance of men and women should be distinct. And gender is more than genitalia. A man does not cease being male or a woman cease being female because they have undergone sex-reassignment surgery. Because transsexuality crosses the boundary of gender-distinct appearance, and because the marriage of a transsexual woman to a man (or transsexual man to a woman) can be construed as a homosexual relationship, it follows that pastors should not marry the couple question 7 describes. This does not mean pastors cannot love, evangelize, and disciple transsexual people, however. Indeed, don’t they deserve some measure of our sympathy and compassion? For what level of emotional confusion does it require to so hate your own body that, in the case of men, you desire to castrate yourself?13
Question 8 asks whether pastors should perform funerals for the homosexual relatives of church members. Let’s reframe this question. Should pastors perform funerals for the unbelieving relatives of church members? Substituting unbelievers for homosexuals clarifies the question. Believers struggle with a variety of sins, including homosexuality. We should not have a problem performing their funerals — whatever their sin — whether they or their relatives attended our church. The real question is performing funerals for unbelievers.
Depending on their consciences (Romans 14:23), different pastors will answer this question differently. We need to consider, however, that performing unbelievers’ funerals may open two doors of ministry for us. The first is ministry to fellow believers. Paul teaches us to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15), and to “comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). The second is ministry to unbelievers. By identifying with them in their pain and offering them God’s comfort, we sow the seed of the gospel into their hearts (Mark 4:1–20).
Participation describes a person’s enhanced level of commitment to the church and its ministries, beyond mere attendance. For Assemblies of God churches, this commitment typically entails formal church membership and lay or vocational ministry. Enrichment received two questions dealing with membership:
- Is heterosexual cohabitation grounds for denying church membership?
- What is the church’s position on a gay/lesbian couple that choose to be in a nonsexual domestic partnership yet desire to have membership with the church?
For Assemblies of God pastors, the answer to the first question is yes. All can attend church; many can participate through membership and ministry; few can lead the church. The distinction between the all, the many, and the few is their level of commitment and responsibility. Attending church requires a low level of commitment and responsibility. Formally joining the church and its ministries, on the other hand, requires a higher level of commitment and responsibility.
Formal church membership involves faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord (Romans 10:9) as well as the pursuit of holiness (1 Peter 1:13–16). Such a pursuit does not mean church members are perfect (Philippians 3:12–14). Rather, it means that they commit themselves to biblical standards of behavior, confession of known sin, openness to fraternal admonition, and desire for continuing growth in holiness (Matthew 18:15–20; Galatians 6:1,2; James 5:16,19,20).
Cohabitation (question 9) violates the biblical standard of sexual behavior and is grounds for denying church membership. But our ministry to the cohabiting couple does not end there. Do we love this couple? Have we evangelized them? Have we taught them both what Christ’s commands are and how to keep them? Are we doing these things gently and personally?
Question 10 is complicated. The church does not have a problem with members of the same sex being roommates. And it encourages celibacy for all unmarried persons. So the critical component of this question revolves around the couples’ experience of same-sex attraction and identification as “domestic partners.” Are their experience and identification grounds for denying this couple church membership?
Consider an analogy: A man and a woman in a church feel attracted to each another. They identify themselves as “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.” Though they practice celibacy, they live together. Assemblies of God pastors would deny them church membership. Why? Membership involves higher commitment and entails higher responsibility. Members commit themselves to pursuing integrity of head, heart, and hand. They are thus responsible to act in ways consistent with that pursuit. By living together they expose themselves to daily sexual temptation based on constant physical proximity. As disciples of Christ, they need to either reduce their exposure to temptation by living separately, or they should consummate their relationship in marriage.
As with the couple in the example above, the “gay/lesbian” couple that live together as “domestic partners” expose themselves to daily sexual temptation based on their constant physical proximity. Unlike the couple above, however, the “gay/lesbian” couple does not have the option to marry one another, since from a biblical point of view, homosexual behavior is sinful (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:26,27; 1 Corinthians 6:9). They need to reduce their exposure to temptation by living separately.
Furthermore, the fact they self-identify as “gay/lesbian” and “domestic partners” may signal a failure in discipleship. The experience of same-sex attraction is not in and of itself sinful,15 any more than merely experiencing temptation is sinful. Same-sex attraction becomes “dishonorable passions” when it is entertained and embraced, for it leads to behavior that is “contrary to nature” (Romans 1:26, 27, ESV)16 — that is, to the standard God established at creation (Genesis 1:27,28; 2:20–24; Matthew 19:4–6).
Christians who continue to identify themselves as “gay” or “lesbian” and who enshrine that identity with the legal status of “domestic partners” seem to reject the biblical teaching regarding “dishonorable passions,” even though they practice celibacy. Their beliefs, emotions, will, and pattern of relationship constitute grounds for denial of membership, even if their behavior is by the book. With Paul, all believers should be able to confess: “in my inner being, I delight in God’s law,” even as they struggle against “another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind” and cry out for deliverance (Romans 7:21–25). This applies especially to church members, whose higher level of commitment to the church and its ministries entails a higher level of spiritual and moral responsibility.
Enrichment received four questions that deal with ministry:
- Should a church allow a single mother, who had a child out of wedlock, to serve in a church ministry? If the church removes her from church ministry for a season, when should the church restore her to full participation?
- Should a church remove a wife from church ministry if her husband needs to step aside because of struggles with pornography or other sexual addiction?
- Should the church disqualify from church leadership the parents of a daughter who chose to have an abortion while still living at home?
- Should the church distinguish between homosexual acts and homosexual tendencies (desires) when screening would-be volunteers? Isn’t the most important issue, in the end, the issue of claiming a gay identity?
In the New Testament, every Christian is a minister, though not all Christians have the same ministry (1 Corinthians 12:4–11). Each of these ministries is necessary to the proper functioning of the body of Christ, that is, the church. (12:12–31). Those who exercise ministries of leadership are subject to the higher levels of scrutiny because their ministries entail higher levels of responsibility for the spiritual and moral well-being of others. Would-be leaders need to scrutinize themselves (James 3:1). And church and denominational authorities need to scrutinize them as well. First Timothy 3:1–13 and Titus 1:5–9 outline the qualifications for and responsibilities of “overseers,” “deacons,” and “elders” — the highest levels of leadership in the local church.
The New Testament church also taught that churches need to exercise discipline over members and ministers who sin, a process outlined in Matthew 18:15–20; Galatians 6:1,2; and James 5:16,19,20. This discipline involves confrontation, repentance, discipline (including potential removal from membership and ministry), and restoration to the same. In 1 Corinthians 5:1–13, the apostle Paul advised the Corinthians, “Expel the wicked man from among you.” In this case, confrontation did not bring about repentance, so discipline was the only option. In a separate case in 2 Corinthians 2:5–11, Paul advised the same church, “You ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” and “reaffirm your love for him.” Here confrontation brought about repentance, resulting in restoration.
The crucial difference between these two cases is the heart of the Christian who sinned. “Godly sorrow,” Paul wrote, “brings repentance” (2 Corinthians 7:10). In general, the church needs to restore to membership and/or ministry persons who have been disciplined because of sin after they have repented, although there may be cases where restoration to ministry in inadvisable.17
New Testament teaching regarding ministry and discipline helps answer question 11. Sex outside of marriage is a sin. Those who sin in this way should be temporarily removed from ministry but restored upon repentance. The duration and nature of the disciplinary process will vary depending on whether the minister is lay or ordained. During the disciplinary period, leaders need to focus on replacing the false beliefs, emotional needs, and behavioral patterns that drove the sexual sin with holy and healthy alternatives.
Regarding question 12, the Bible teaches the general principle that people are responsible for their own sins (Ezekiel 18:19,20). Removing a wife from ministry because of the sexual sins of her husband seems like disciplining her for his sins, in contravention of this general principle. Yes, good family management is a qualification for the ministry of “overseers” and “elders” (1 Timothy 1:4,5; Titus 1:6), but that qualification applies explicitly to children, not spouses. Unfortunately, in cases involving Assemblies of God credentialed ministers, the disciplinary process sometimes includes removing the pastor from the church. Obviously, this affects his or her spouse.
The principle of good family management applies to question 13. Can a church disqualify a married couple from leadership because their daughter, who lives at home, had an abortion? The answer depends on the nature of their ministry as well as the age and maturity of the daughter. Good family management is, after all, an explicit qualification for the ministry of overseer/elder. There may be ministries where good family management is not as important. Moreover, one can imagine scenarios where parents cannot be held responsible for the actions of their child, as for example, when that child is an adult. Regardless, in the aftermath of the abortion, we should be prepared to minister to the spiritual needs of both the parents and their daughter.
Regarding question 14, not all Assemblies of God churches screen volunteers (although they should).18 Those who offer to volunteer for church ministries who continue to affirm they have a gay identity send a wrong message to those they seek to serve. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross that gives victory over the penalty and power of sin brings about the reality of the new life in Christ — “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). How can the old be gone if the individual remains convinced of his or her gay identity? The enhanced levels of commitment and responsibility inherent to church membership and ministry require us to reflect not only on what we believe and how we behave, but also on how we feel and what we desire to do.”
Conclusion: How, Not Whether
This article has examined how to minister to and with people where sexual sin — whether their own or others’ — has complicated their lives. I have offered answers to specific questions based on my understanding of biblical teaching and my pastoral experience with the kind of people mentioned in the questions. Some of the questions, and perhaps some of my answers, have made you uncomfortable. Feel free to reconsider the advice I have given based on your biblical understanding and pastoral experience.
But do not feel free to ignore the challenge of ministering to such people because their sexual practices and attitudes make you uncomfortable. The question is not whether to minister to and with such people, but only how. These people live in our communities; they worship in our pews. They are our neighbors, friends, and family members. And Christ said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick,” and “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12,13).
We may not know how to respond in every circumstance complicated by sexual sin, but we do know this: Christ accepts people wherever they are, but He never leaves them there. He moves them toward spiritual health and holiness.
Should we not strive to do the same?
- In this article, the word pastors refers to credentialed, vocational ministers. The word ministers refers to all people who exercise a ministry within the local church, whether lay or credentialed.
- See especially George O. Wood, “Human Sexuality in the Image of God,” and Robert A.J. Gagnon, “Understanding and Responding to Pro-Homosexual Interpretation of Scripture,” in this issue.
- The opinions expressed in this article should be construed as the advice of one Assemblies of God pastor to other Assemblies of God pastors and not as official guidelines promulgated by The General Council of the Assemblies of God.
- National Marriage Project, When Marriage Fails: The New Middle America, The State of Our Unions: Marriage in America 2010 (Charlottesville, VA: National Marriage Project, 2010), 13. http://www.stateofourunions.org/2010/SOOU2010.pdf. Hereafter, page numbers will be cited in the text.
- There has also been an increase in premarital sex. Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker report that 84 percent of 18- to 23-year-old adults have had sex. Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), Kindle edition Location 53.
- Gallup, “Americans’ Acceptance of Gay Relations Crosses 50 Percent Threshold.” Accessed March 8, 2011.
- See Bradley R.E. Wright, Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You’ve Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths from the Secular and Christian Media (Bloomington, Minnesota: Bethany House, 2010), 149. See 131–49 for documentation across a range of practices and attitudes.
- The choices to divorce or remarry after divorce are not necessarily sinful. See the Assemblies of God position paper, “Divorce and Remarriage.”.
- Wood, “Human Sexuality in the Image of God,” XX.
- In an e-mail to the author, Joe Dallas of Genesis Counseling writes, “these are, by the way, scenarios we are currently facing and will surely face in greater numbers in the coming years” (March 8, 2011). See also John W. Kennedy, “The Transgender Moment: Evangelicals hope to respond with both moral authority and biblical compassion to gender identity disorder,” Christianity Today (February 2008).
- Nancy Heche, “Transgender Issues,” in The Complete Christian Guide to Understanding Homosexuality: A Biblical and Compassionate Response to Same-Sex Attraction, ed. Joe Dallas and Nancy Heche (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House, 2010), 445.
- See the Assemblies of God position paper, “Sanctify of Human Life: Abortion and Reproductive Issues,” 2. Accessed March 4, 2011.
- “[I]t should be noted that suicide attempts, drug abuse, and horrendous efforts at self-mutilation are commonly reported among young transsexuals”; Heche, “Transgender Issues,” 446.
- Here, cohabitation implies both living together and engaging in sexual intercourse without benefit of marriage.
- See the Assemblies of God position paper, “Homosexuality,” 4n.1.
- Scripture quotations marked ESV are taken from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, copyright © 2001, Wheaton: Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- For example, the Assemblies of God removes credential holders from ministry who have sexually molested children and does not restore them to ministry.
- For advice on how to screen ministry volunteers and church employees in a legally responsible way, see Richard R. Hammar, “Ten Legal Risks Facing Churches and Church Leaders,” Enrichment, 9, no. 1 (winter 2004): 78–85, also online at: http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/200401/200401_78_legalrisks.cfm; “Navigating the Sexual Minefield in Today’s Culture” Enrichment 15, no. 2 (spring 2010): 54–63. See also G. Stanton Masters, “Avoiding Negligent Hiring, Retention, and Supervision Claims Against Churches” Enrichment 15, no. 2 (spring 2010): 64–72.