In his exceptional book ‘The Prodigal God’, Tim Keller says…
Jesus’s teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did.
Phillip Yancey makes a similar point in ‘The Jesus I never knew’:
As my class in Chicago read the Gospels and watched movies about Jesus’ life, we noticed a striking pattern: the more unsavory the characters, the more at ease they seemed to feel around Jesus… In contrast, Jesus got a chilly response from more respectable types. I remarked to the class how strange this pattern seemed, since the Christian church now attracts respectable types who closely resemble the people most suspicious of Jesus on earth. What has happened to reverse the pattern of Jesus’ day? Why don’t sinners like being around us? I recounted a story told me by a friend who works with the down-and-out in Chicago.
A prostitute came to him in wretched straits, homeless, her health failing, unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter. Her eyes awash with tears, she confessed that she had been renting out her daughter—two years old!—to men interested in kinky sex, in order to support her own drug habit. My friend could hardly bear hearing the sordid details of her story. He sat in silence, not knowing what to say. At last he asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. “I will never forget the look of pure astonishment that crossed her face,” he later told me. “‘Church!’ she cried. ‘Why would I ever go there? They’d just make me feel even worse than I already do!’”
Somehow we have created a community of respectability in the church… The down-and-out, who flocked to Jesus when he lived on earth, no longer feel welcome. How did Jesus, the only perfect person in history, manage to attract the notoriously imperfect? And what keeps us from following in his steps today?
So in light of what Keller and Yancey are saying, how can we seek to love, serve and share the gospel with those who feel the least loved by God? Or in this particular case, how can we seek to love, serve and share the gospel with the gay community?
Here are 4 principles that might be worth considering…
#1 ATTACK VS AFFIRM (BELIEF SYSTEM)
In Acts 17:16-34, we read how the Apostle Paul reached out to a “group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers” (V18).
Here we find that he “was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (V16). Now we might have expected Paul to instantly go on the offensive, perhaps by smashing the idols or at least attacking what they stood for. Certainly this is how many Christians treat people in the gay community. But that wasn’t what Paul did.
Rather than go on the attack, Paul begins by affirming everything he can…
(a) “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.” (V22)
> Rather than see their idol worship as entirely negative, he affirms the fact that they are searching. Later he goes onto say…
(b) “God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” (V27)
> So again he affirms their search.
Tim Keller explains: “In his speech in Athens… Paul describes God in ways that many pagans could accept (Acts 17: 22– 23, 24– 28)… Paul always chooses ‘elements of contact’— points of actual agreement and affirmation of some of the audience’s concerns, hopes, and needs… He chooses five ideas about God from the Bible with which the Stoic philosophers present could agree and proceeds from there.” (Kindle Locations 1184-1190, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism)
If we want to talk about Jesus without being homophobic, we’re going to have to start by affirming rather than attacking. And the truth is, there’s so much to affirm. Christians and the gay community agree that…
> All of us long for love and intimacy.
> Making a life-long commitment to someone else is commendable.
> Sex is something to be treasured.
> All people, regardless of race, status, gender or sexuality are to be valued and treated with human dignity.
#2 BIBLE VS BELIEFS (AUTHORITY)
Aaron Menikoff said: “Since our doctrine and life is founded on the Word of God, we serve the unchurched best by directing them honestly, faithfully, and clearly to Scripture”. As much as this might make sense, especially to those of us who have grown up believing the Bible, it could very well be detrimental in our efforts to reach out to those in the gay community.
Andy Stanley explains:
I believe the Scriptures are God-breathed. You believe it. But most people don’t. Most people assume the Bible was written by men and is, therefore, full of errors… People don’t have to believe the Scriptures are God-breathed to become followers of Christ… There was no Bible as we know it for the first three hundred years of Christianity. People were becoming followers of Christ before the Gospels were even written…
Our culture needs to understand that the foundation of the Christian faith is not an infallible Bible. The foundation of our faith is a single event in history attested to by individuals who lived and wrote during the days when this event transpired. For the sake of convenience, their writings were gathered up and published in what we refer to as the New Testament, a phrase that was first used at the end of the second century. The best thing we can do for unbelievers in our congregations is to continually drive them back to the prevalent issue for anyone at their stage in the journey: Who was Jesus? And close behind is this question: What are you going to do with the overwhelming evidence that he rose from the dead? (p 246-250, Deep & Wide)
In Acts 17:16-34, we might expect the Apostle Paul to quote from the Bible (Old Testament) as a source of authority. But instead he chooses to appeal to his audience’s already-held beliefs…
(a) “As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’” (V28)
> Tim Keller explains: “He quotes authorities that his listeners respect. Of course he cites the Bible when speaking to Jews or to Gentile ‘God-fearers’ or to converts to Judaism. But when addressing the philosophers on Mars Hill he quotes Aratus, a pagan author.”
(b) “I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” (V23)
> Again we find Paul appealing to something which his audience already believes in.
So why does Paul do this? Is he embarrassed by the Bible? Does he lack the courage to quote God’s word in a public forum? What is Paul trying to do?
It would seem that Paul is trying to gain a voice with his audience. And According to Keller: “One of the cardinal rules of engagement is that you state the view that you’re going to critique in its strongest form. You state it so well that your opponent would say ‘I couldn’t have said it better myself’. Then when you start to dismantle it, the people who are on the other side are going to take you seriously. At least they’re going to feel like you listened… ‘You put me in the best light. Now you’re dismantling me, I’ll listen to you’. But when a person hears their position kind of caricatured and ridiculed and then dismantled, you’ve lost the audience.”
If we want to talk about Jesus without being homophobic, we’re going to have to start by referring to their already-held beliefs rather than the Bible. What might this look like? Depending on the people we’re talking to, it could mean appealing to any of the following…
> TED Talks
> Song Lyrics
#3 CONDEMN VS CONFESS (SIN PROBLEM)
In ‘The Reason for God’, Tim Keller says: “Christians should expect to find nonbelievers who are much nicer, kinder, wiser, and better than they are. Why? Christian believers are not accepted by God because of their moral performance, wisdom, or virtue, but because of Christ’s work on their behalf. Most religions assume that one’s spiritual status depends on your religious attainments. This naturally leads adherents to feel superior to those who don’t believe and behave as they do. The Christian gospel, in any case, should not have that effect.”
If you ask a group of Christians what might hold them back from sharing their faith, one thing that’s sure to come up is the ‘fear of offending others’. No one wants to come across as angry or judgemental. And yet, at the same time, many Christians believe that if they’re going to be effective at evangelism, then they need to condemn homosexuals for their lifestyle.
One helpful step might be to change our mindset from ‘condemnation’ to ‘confession’. Rather than primarily set out to tell unbelievers that they are sinful, we need to first start by telling unbelievers how sinful we are.
The Apostle Paul said: “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy… Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.” (1 Timothy 1:13-16 )
Here we find one of the greatest Christian leaders to have ever lived describing himself as the “worst of sinners” (V16). Why? He wanted others to know that they too could “believe… and receive eternal life” (V16). Paul knew that if unbelievers could see that Jesus was able to save an angry, self-righteous murderer who set out to destroy the church, then Jesus could save anyone.
So rather than setting out to condemn homosexuality, we would be much wiser to start by condemning the sins that we’re guilty of. We’re all guilty of gossip. We’re all guilty of greed. Every person alive today knows what it’s like to be selfish. We struggle to forgive. We often fail to be grateful. According to Jesus, if we’ve ever lusted after someone who is not our spouse then we’re guilty of sexual immorality.
Now this in no way means that we should shy away from talking about homosexuality. But homosexuality is just one of thousands of sins that Jesus died for. And it needs to be placed in it’s proper context.
If we want to talk about Jesus without being homophobic, we’re going to have to start with confession. By doing so, we accomplish three things…
(a) We put our own lives on display as an example of how God can save sinners.
(b) We put the sin of homosexuality in it’s proper context. It is just one of many sins that Jesus died for.
(c) We open the door to be able to talk to others about their sin and their need for a Saviour.
#4 DO VS DONE (GOSPEL)
In his books ”Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism’ and ‘The Reason for God’, Tim Keller outlines why it’s absolutely essential for Christians to preach about what Jesus has DONE, rather than what we must DO…
Legalism is far more than the conscious belief that “I can be saved by my good works.” It is a web of attitudes of heart and character. It is the thought that God’s love for us is conditioned on something we can be or do. It is the attitude that I offer certain things— my ethical goodness, my relative avoidance of deliberate sin, my faithfulness to the Bible and the church— that support Christ’s work and contribute to God’s goodwill toward me. (Kindle Locations 597-600, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism)
There is, then, a great gulf between the understanding that God accepts us because of our efforts and the understanding that God accepts us because of what Jesus has done. Religion operates on the principle ‘I obey – therefore I am accepted by God.’ But the operating principle of the gospel is ‘I am accepted by God through what Christ has done – therefore I obey.’ Two people living their lives on the basis of these two different principles may sit next to each other in the church pew. They both pray, give money generously, and are loyal and faithful to their family and church, trying to live decent lives. However, they do so out of two radically different motivations, in two radically different spiritual identities, and the result is two radically different kind of lives.
The primary difference is that of motivation. In religion, we try to obey the divine standards out of fear. We believe that if we don’t obey we are going to lose God’s blessing in this world and the next. In the gospel, the motivation is one of gratitude for the blessing we have already received because of Christ. While the moralist is forced into obedience, motivated by fear of rejection, a Christian rushes into obedience, motivated by a desire to please and resemble the one who gave his life for us…
In Christ I could know I was accepted by grace not only despite my flaws, but because I was willing to admit them. The Christian gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me.
The founders of every other major religion essentially came as teachers, not as saviors. They came to say: ‘Do this and you will find the divine.’ But Jesus came essentially as a savior rather than a teacher (though he was that as well). Jesus says: ‘I am the divine come to you, to do what you could not do for yourselves.’ The Christian message is that we are saved not by our record, but by Christ’s record. (p186-188, 192, The Reason for God)
If we want to talk about Jesus without being homophobic, we’re going to have to go out of our way to make sure we preach about what Jesus has DONE, not what they need to DO.
In other words, a homosexual doesn’t need to stop being gay in order to become a Christian. They don’t even need to promise to stop being gay in order to become a Christian (obviously that would be a promise they would not be able to keep). Rather, in order for a homosexual to become a Christian, they need to embrace two things…
> Agree with God that sin is not a good thing that should be celebrated or embraced. Rather it is evil and destructive. It destroys our relationship with God and others.
> Acknowledge that we’re not good people who occasionally do the wrong thing. Rather we’re sinful people who are unable to do a good thing.
> Recognize that we’re under the judgement of God. We desperately need a saviour to save us from the consequences of our sin, and the power of our sin.
> Trust in Jesus’ finished work on our behalf, believing that all our past, present, future, accidental and deliberate sin is paid for in full by His death on the cross.
> Receive the Holy Spirit who will come into our lives and begin to wage war against our sinful nature, transforming us from the inside out to be more like Jesus.