December 11, 2014

Developing a church statement on human sexuality

by Jesse Johnson

There are two reasons churches need to have clear teaching on human sexuality (sexual attraction, sexual identity, gender distinctions, etc). The first is because this is an issue which Scripture speaks about. It is under attack in today’s culture, and thus churches should be quick to clearly explain what the Bible actually says on the issue.

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The second reason is because our culture is particularly litigious. With that in mind, churches have a stewardship over their finances and property to make sure that they are protected against such lawsuits, and currently the best legal protection we have is churches have the freedom to structure themselves around their own teachings. However, this legal protection is moot when churches don’t have any articulated or published views on the topic.

The point of this post is to encourage churches to develop some statement and teaching on this issue, precisely because it is the issue currently under attack. The hymn writer Elizabeth Charles was correct when she wrote:

If I profess, with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christianity. Where the battle rages the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle-field besides is mere flight and disgrace to him if he flinches at that one point.

Any statement a church makes about human sexuality must be seen through two lenses: cultural and biblical. Every church is in the world, and our current world is confused about the concept of human sexuality. Even things which are biologically obvious (such as physical differences between men and women, the concept of gender, etc.) are doubted in our current environment.

Our church exists in an era where human sexuality is disconnected from both God’s design in Adam and Eve, as well as from the commitment of marriage. Sexual deviance (allowing sexual desires to leave the God-given confines of marriage) is seen in the “mainstreaming” of pornography, adultery, homosexuality, and divorce. This is all a product of a society that tolerates and celebrates these forms of sexual immorality. The result is a culture in crisis. According to a recent study by the Marriage and Religion Research Institute:

Forty-five percent of U. S. children on the cusp of adulthood have grown up in an intact married family. The mother and father of the remaining 55 percent of 17-year-olds have at some time rejected each other as husband and wife.

Our culture prizes the tolerance of deviance, while eschewing any notion that God is the one who designed both sex and gender. In other words, our world is opposed to biological reality and scientific facts because they are actually opposed to the God who made both. Thus a biblical understanding of sexuality is critical because we recognize this to be a spiritual issue.

Below is a sample statement that I have been working on. Feel free to use it, and also feel free to suggest changes or edits to it in the comments below:

God’s Design of Gender

All people are made in the image and likeness of God, and this is a fact from conception onward (Genesis 1:26-27; Psalms 51:5, 139:13; Isaiah 49:1).  Neither one’s conduct nor character diminishes his/her value to the Creator, a fact demonstrated by the atoning death of Jesus Christ for all people (1 Timothy 2:5-6).

But God did not simply make people in his image; rather he made them in his image as “male and female” (Genesis 1:26).  Scripture is never ambivalent regarding people’s gender identity, and gender itself is rooted in biological realities that existed all the way back in Genesis 1—before the fall.

For this reason the Bible can speak to men and women differently. Different instructions can be given to men than to women (1 Timothy 2-3, Titus 1-2, 1 Corinthians 16:13, etc.). Yet the Bible can also affirm that both genders are equally in the image of God (Genesis 1:27, Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 5:22-31).

The Scripture makes clear that gender exists at birth and that both genders have equal worth/value/significance to God, yet they are also different from each other.

God’s Design of Marriage

Immediately after creating gender, God created marriage which was inextricably linked to gender. This includes the sexual union of a husband and wife.(Genesis 1:27-29, 2:22-25). Thus throughout the Bible, marriage is recognized as the covenantal union of one man and one woman, for life.

Gender differences are not ancillary to marriage, but are rather the whole point of the relationship. It was not good for man to be alone, God said, so he needed someone like him but not like him. Men and women are different physically, biologically, emotionally, and in a range of other ways (See this study here for examples of this). It is precisely in these differences that marriage is designed to be complementary.

Immanuel Bible Church uses the term “complementary” to describe the way God designed marriage to function. In a complementary marriage, gender differences combine to form a family that is more a reflection of God’s design than a relationship where these differences are not present. This complementary nature of marriage is one of the reasons God made Eve different from Adam in the very beginning.

God’s Design for Sex

The most obvious example of the complementary nature of marriage is sexual intimacy. Sex within marriage exists for the purposes of both “one-flesh” bonding and procreation, neither of which is possible in a same-sex relationship (Gen 2:24). Sexual expression is not additional to marriage (as if it were an extra, added onto the design of marriage), but rather it is a fundamental expression of the complementary commitment made between a husband and wife, reinforced by this being the only way to bring a child into the world.

For this reason, the Scripture makes clear that any sexual act outside of marriage is sinful. Thus, heterosexual sexual acts outside of marriage are sin, as well as all homosexual sexual acts—among other reasons, because they too exist outside of a biblical concept of marriage.

God’s Design for Children

We believe that every child should have the opportunity to be raised by a mom and a dad. We are quick to recognize that sin has marred our society, and many parents have been abandoned by a spouse and raise their children in single-parent homes. Others have had a spouse die. We don’t want to diminish their work, but rather we recognize the added difficulty of their task because of their situation.

Nevertheless, we maintain that children do best when raised by a mother and a father. This is attested to by countless studies (American Psychological AssociationJournal for Social Science ResearchCitizenLink Public PolicyBrookings Institute, human history, etc. Grudem also has a helpful list of studies that show this on pages 223-224 in Politics).

God’s design for those with same-sex attractions

Further, we recognize that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). The sin nature is internal, comprehensive, and at the very center of our identity. We also recognize that different people have different dispositions to sin, and that some people see in themselves a sexual attraction to those of their same gender. Those attractions can be deep and sincere, and yet still be sinful.

For that reason, the only hope for those enslaved to any kind of sin (but particularly sexual sin) is the forgiveness that is found in the gospel. In the act of salvation, God frees us from the slavery to sin and gives us the power to love Jesus and serve him. Some Christians will still struggle with sexual sin, but all Christians recognize those struggles as part of the sanctification process, and strive to lead godly lives.

The Bible holds out a high calling for those who are Christians and yet who have no desire to participate in a biblical marriage. They are to be sold out for the glory of Jesus, taking risks to advance the gospel and leading lives focused on the gospel. They should maximize the freedom they have because they are undivided by the interests of family (Matthew 19:12, 1 Corinthians 7:8-9, 32-35; I preached  a sermon on this topic here).

Affirmations and denials

  • We affirm that God designed marriage, gender, and sex.
  • We affirm that gender is a binary biological reality present at birth (This is God’s original design, but we recognize that in rare cases people are born with ambiguous biological characteristics).
  • We affirm that sin mars God’s original design, and that people consequently are born with sin in their hearts and their identities.
  • We affirm that all sexual activity outside of marriage is sinful and displeasing to the Lord.
  • We affirm that marriage is a life-long commitment between two people of opposite genders.
  • We deny that any same sex relationship is properly called marriage.
  • We deny that the Bible’s prohibitions against sexual activity outside of marriage were culturally specific.
  • We deny that it can be pleasing to the Lord for one to change his/her physical gender because of a perceived psychological identification with another gender.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Jack Dove

    great post. I’m sure the leadership in our church will benefit from your study on this most important and timely topic. Thanks!

  • Dan Sudfeld

    This is very helpful, Jesse. Thank you for your work.

  • Johnny

    In all seriousness, any affirmations of the sinfulness of married Christian couples that willingly refuse to have children? (either biologically/adoptive/foster?) I’m seeing more and more of this in the church lately with never a word from the pulpit. Homosexuality is the capital sin it seems lately, but blowing off God’s mandate the be fruitful and multiply never seems to get much attention.

    • Well I think that woudl be out of place in a document like this, on human sexuality. Maybe in a statement on children or parenting that topic would be appropriate.

      • Johnny

        That’s what I don’t get, because this is EXACTLY about human sexuality. I’m being asked to condone homosexuality (a violation of God’s design for human sexuality) yet turn a selective blind eye to deliberate childlessness, through surgical or OCP means (again, a violation of God’s design for human sexuality.) Not sure I see the difference.

        I’ve visited FIC churched in the past, and while they can get a little wonky with certain teachings, one thing I’ve admired is that they are open about encouraging families to have children and for mother’s to stay home with the kids. Definitely not PC, but I think they’re on to something lacking in the church today – that is, a premium put on children.

        • MR

          If you call wonky, Doug Phillips and Bill Gothard sexually abusing young girls. Check out the FIC movement, and if you dig deep enough you’ll find deeply troubling patterns. And I’m still waiting to hear about the passage commanding children. Let me ask you something. Have you ever been abused? Sexually or mentally? Do you know what that does to people? Some people who have suffered through abuse don’t feel they can raise children and maybe shouldn’t. God forgives and heals, but that doesn’t mean that the brokenness will be taken away this side of glory. Have compassion.

          • Johnny

            Fair enough. But for arguments sake, the childless mindset you speak of from abuse could be addressed by church leadership much like homosexuality could be, and its definitely something that the power of Christ could overcome. Yes, I agree abuse can be a factor, but I also believe there’s something to be said for childlessness due to convenience, personal interests and, in a large sense, selfishness. What I’m getting at are married couples in the church who seem emotionally stable, have a nice house and decent income but who have, for whatever reason, just decided not to have children. That, I would argue, is a violation of God’s design for human sexuality as much as being gay is.

            We can squabble about things like the emotional issues all day, but I’d urge you to consider the demographics of places like Europe, where the landscape is going largely to the Islamic religion – one that encourages children and large families, unlike Christianity in the west. A couple generations and things will continue to change in that landscape. And FYI, guess what the most popular boy’s name in England is? (hint: it isn’t “Harry”)

            As for proof text? Two come to mind: Psalm 127:5 regarding children – “Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them”. There’s a action implied there…. he fills the quiver.
            Then there’s Leviticus 20:2. The Israelites sacrified their children to a false god to please their own self-interests. ‘Nuff said.

          • MR

            I understand that if it’s for convenience sake, then yes it is selfish. But blanket statements can be offensive to already hurting individuals. And the text you quote is stretching. If that is true then we all need to give up our jobs and become farmers, “to subdue the earth.” At least that’s what a hardcore FIC/Patriarch guy once told me. V. Bachman once said, “we can overcome the Muslims by out breeding them.” Really?

    • sherwood008

      Is there still a mandate to go forth and multiply under the covenant with Christ? If I adopted children that were not mine, would I truly still be multiplying (or adding) to the population? As far as I know in the N.T. marriage isn’t commanded (in fact even warned again by the apostle Paul – 1 Cor 7:28), much less married people being commanded to have children … ?

      • Johnny

        Really bad hermeneutical gymnastics there, friend

        • sherwood008

          Could you elaborate?

          • Johnny

            The mandate isn’t just to “multiply”, it’s to be “fruitful”, which I think could cover adoption, wouldn’t you think? (James 1:27). I’ve also wondered how there are childless men who serve as elders in churches, when the pastoral epistles seem to speak about a man with children (Titus 2:6) but that’s another can of worms…

          • GinaRD

            There’s this thing called infertility. Maybe you’ve heard of it.

          • Jeff Schlottmann

            Titus 2:6 is about urging young men to be self-controlled.

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  • Joy

    Thanks for your leadership, Jesse. So grateful that our church will have something like this in place. I especially appreciate the denials along with the affirmations, makes everything crystal clear!

    • Thanks Joy. The elders are working through this right now. Rob Schwarzwalder is the one who in fact wrote most of this above.

      • GinaRD

        He did a nice job. Good post.

  • Brad

    I enjoyed this article very much, especially the denials and affirmations.

    The only things I would add would be something for singles, something about pornography and masturbation, a little more hope/compassion for those struggling with their sexuality and for the LGBT community. Oh, and maybe something on fatherhood.

    I’ll definitely be saving this document and adding to it some stuff that addresses the hot-button issues in my ministry context!

  • Eric Van Dyken

    Hi Jesse,
    Thanks for the model. Lots of good stuff there. Suggestion: The gender and marriage sections might benefit from a reference to Matthew 19/Mark 10 as Jesus confirms the pattern set forth in Genesis.

  • Josh

    Very good and helpful statement. More churches definitely need this. One thing that I believe was implied, but not explicitly stated, is that homosexual desires (not just acts themselves) are sinful (i.e. Rom 1:26-27). I only point this out because it may be helpful to make it clear, as this is really where the dividing line is for many within Christianity. (There is often an “it’s ok to have the desire as long as you don’t act on it” kind of mentality, despite the spirit and teaching of the Sermon on the Mount)

    • GinaRD

      I don’t believe that’s true. To deliberately foster the desire is sinful; simply to experience the desire isn’t. Jesus Himself felt temptation, but the fact that He felt it did not make Him a sinner.

      • Josh

        What you’ve articulated is why I think it’s helpful for church’s to make a clear distinction. Homosexual desires are sinful (cf. “desire”…Romans 1:26-27), hence the very reason they must be battled daily.

      • To deliberately foster the desire is sinful; simply to experience the desire isn’t.

        That’s not quite right. If I have the desire to cheat on my wife, or punch my boss, or to steal something I like from a store, that desire is sin right where it stands, fostering or no fostering. It’s wrong to sin, and so it’s wrong to want to sin, too. Surely that’s precisely Jesus’ point in the Sermon on the Mount, as Josh mentioned; i.e., that it’s not just sin to murder, but to be angry; it’s not just sin to commit adultery, but even to lust.

        Jesus Himself felt temptation, but the fact that He felt it did not make Him a sinner.

        The difference between Jesus “feeling temptation” and the kind of thing we’re talking about with homosexual desire (or lust or anger, etc.), is that Jesus’ temptation was always external, whereas ours is often internal. Jesus was never tempted by the desires of His own heart; there were no hooks in His heart which sin could latch onto. His temptation, which of course was very real, was nevertheless external; Satan tempted Him, goaded Him to try to persuade Him to sin. But His desires were pure. Ours are not. Sin looks enticing to us, where for Him it was His always His delight to do the will of His Father (cf. John 4:34; 5:19).

        Bottom line: If x is sin, wanting x is also sin. And that just shows us that following Christ requires a new heart (with renewed affections and desires), not just behavior modification.

        • GinaRD

          What about Christians who feel unwanted desires, but fight them off and live celibate lives? Most of us here, I expect, have heard or read the stories of such Christians. Are they in sin for feeling desires they didn’t ask for and don’t want, and which they ask God’s help to strive against?

          • If those desires aren’t sin, why don’t they want them? Why do they fight against them and ask God’s help to strive against them? The desire to sin is, of course, itself sinful. If my Father tells me that I am not to have something, but I want it anyway, that means there’s something wrong with my desires. And because we all battle remaining sin in our flesh until we see Christ face to face, we will always battle with sinful desires. Romans 7:14-25.

            Now of course it’s better not to multiply our sin by acting on our sinful desires. It’s a good thing if a lustful man does not commit adultery. But that doesn’t excuse his lust; lust is still sinful even if one doesn’t act upon it. Again, that’s Jesus’ entire point in the Sermon on the Mount: sin and holiness are most fundamentally matters of the heart (see here and here for more on that).

            So yes, we must repent even of our sinful desires, recognizing that God doesn’t merely call us to standard of holy actions (though He does that!), but also holy affections — that we might both will (internal affections) and work (external actions) for His good pleasure (cf. Phil 2:13).

  • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

    I’m sorry you have to deal with these issues, but am grateful for the wisdom, courage and example you are setting by doing so.

  • Jason Ramay

    Pastor, I really appreciate this post. Since you asked, one suggestion I have that might help strengthen your statement is to look into the curious history of the word “gender.” I believe your use of it gives implicit approval to beliefs and behaviors inimical to your orthodox statement. D.H. Lawrence is the villain here (no surprise). He was the first to speak of “having sex” as if it were an activity instead of a God-given set of traits. But of course, everyone has a “sex” all the time – either male or female. In my opinion – and it’s a humble opinion – the word “gender” gives up too much to the proponents of non- or anti-Christian beliefs regarding sex and sexuality. Keep up the good work! Peace.

    https://books.google.com/books?id=J4i3zV4vnBAC&pg=PA393&lpg=PA393&dq=dh+lawrence+and+the+phrase+%22having+sex%22&source=bl&ots=aEseSJAGAj&sig=XhvPkN3Xw5-cy61nqh_5FJLl5sk&hl=en&sa=X&ei=noKLVMCKHMe4ogS494C4Cg&ved=0CCcQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=dh%20lawrence%20and%20the%20phrase%20%22having%20sex%22&f=false

  • 4Commencefiring4

    In today’s political climate, where matters of “gender” are the basis for increasing numbers of lawsuits, it seems to me any church would be wise to arm itself in advance–and as soon as possible–with a constitution and statement of faith which makes crystal clear what it expects in the life of its members, as well as those who merely attend.

    Right now, my church’s constitution–in my opinion–is overly concerned with doctrinal issues that are the stuff of theology debates and little else. These are matters that do not derail a church; plenty of seasoned, mature believers have taken both sides of many things for along time.

    But today, as we know, a gay couple who is turned down by a church for a marriage ceremony can be sued. And if that church has not–in advance–declared in writing what they require for approval of marriage, they could be a target. (The problem is exacerbated by the fact that tax exemptions for churches make what they practice more problematic). Instead of taking up space with side issues like one’s ideas about anglels or witches or how old the universe is, I think church constitutions should address the matters for which they might be sued.

    My church is reportedly going to require that at least one of the couple getting married be a member, or their parent(s), and therefore if one is a practicing homosexual there would be an out for the pastor(s). But I think extending it to parents might not be wise: even a christian parent might have a gay child–and we’re back to square one. It may be that scotching tax breaks will be the only solution; it would take the wolf away from the door. Hopefully, it won’t come to that.

    • Jason

      If history is any indicator, there is literally no popular misunderstanding that won’t be used as a rally-point for those opposing the truth to gain support from those who want their approval.

      If we focus solely on the issues that are at risk of creating legal trouble today we’re already behind the times. I don’t know if there’s a single topic that can be safely side-lined completely.

      I agree that the parents loophole is going to be a problem. Even the membership requirement isn’t sufficient as a replacement for a pledge to God’s definition of marriage, though it may be close if membership is very restricted (it’s usually not).

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  • Jamie

    this is a great post! Thanks !!!