A Time for Change
New developments at Courage
“No-one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no-one, after drinking the old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is better.’”
Luke 5:37–39 (NIV)
During 2001, the work of Courage underwent major changes. After 14 years experience of full-time pastoral ministry, I needed to take time out to seek God about our future. I no longer felt happy to continue with our former ethos. This requires a little explanation.
When Courage began in 1988, I shared the view commonly held amongst conservative evangelical Christians that, according to the Bible, we are all made male and female, and that the marital union of a man and a woman fulfils God's purposes for mankind—godly marriage and family life forming the essential building blocks for a stable society. (In my view, those remain important values.) But by the turn of the Millennium, I was feeling increasingly unhappy with some of the assumptions we’d held about homosexuality.
We had started upon the principal belief that a homosexual orientation signalled a breakdown of God’s creation plan and that homosexual desires/practice were indicative of man’s rebellion against God. To accept the idea of homosexual practice was anathema. A few biblical texts appeared to strongly underline this view (Lev. 18:20; 20:13: Romans 1:26,27; 1 Cor. 6:9–11; 1 Tim. 1:9–11). So, in common with many evangelical Christians, we believed that sexual intimacy was for marriage alone.
Yet we knew that homosexual people do not voluntarily choose their orientation. And knowing personally what a distressing issue this can be to live with, especially given the general antipathy, if not outright hostility of society and the Church, I began the ministry, believing that the gospel offers hope for gay people too, if they earnestly seek to worship God and follow Jesus Christ as Lord.
Discipleship & Pastoral Care
Our non-negotiable view regarding homosexuality, however, promoted the belief that “the answer” was either to be found through the possibility of change, “… to become heterosexual as God intended”, if this was the heart’s desire of the person seeking help, or at the very least to live a celibate life. We believed such objectives could be realised through a lifestyle of ongoing repentance, devotion to Christ and a willingness “to deal with the deeper issues” (e.g. abuse, rejection, lack of bonding to the same-sex parent, etc.).
Our understanding was that homosexuality originates from a deficit in normal same-sex bonding and role models in childhood and also a deep need for unconditional love. We therefore reckoned that non-sexual same-sex bonding within the Christian community would allow a person to “mature to adult heterosexuality” and maybe even go on to marry. The arguments put forward for this somewhat prescriptive approach seemed compelling at the time and many people welcomed our ministry initiative, recognising that the pastoral need was great.
After ten years, however, six spent running residential discipleship courses, followed by years of weekly group meetings, it was increasingly clear that however repentant people were, and however much dedicated effort they put into seeking change, none were really “successful” in the long term in “dealing with the deeper issues”. This is not to say that people gained no benefit! Many matured greatly. A few went ahead and married, doing so “in faith” that this was God’s perfect will for their lives. However, their same-sex attractions remained an ongoing issue for them (and in quite a few cases, usually after struggling for a number of years, sadly this struggle has brought their marriage to an end). So the kind of change everyone really hoped for—which was to “re-orientate” and reach a point where their struggle against homosexuality was well and truly over, remained at best elusive—and at worst, the disillusionment which set in destroyed their faith.
Rewarding Those Who Seek Him
There can be no doubt that a great many sincere and God-fearing men and women that we worked with over the years showed the most exceptional dedication to “dealing with their issues”. Yet over 15–20 years, we never saw the fruit we longed for.
Critics might be quick to argue that “working through the issues” is not the point. Because, after all, there have been a great many Christians down the centuries who have made huge sacrifices to follow Christ: this is part of a Christian’s calling! Moreover, the grace of God is apparent in the lives of many who, out of their love for the Lord Jesus, have battled courageously with sickness, disability and all manner of persecutions and suffering. This is indeed an inspiration to us all! But many gay Christians have suffered too, courageously facing a life of inner conflict and loneliness, because they had given up or renounced the possibility of a gay relationship. The blessing of marriage and the companionship this offers—open to all heterosexual Christians—has always been denied to gay Christians. Celibacy, it seemed, was the only option for those who could not marry heterosexually.
Yet the word celibacy is nowhere to be found in the Bible. The idea of “renouncing marriage for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven” was introduced by Jesus (Matthew 19:12) and supported by Paul (1 Corinthians 7:7). But both were quite clear: singleness is a gift. In fact, the Church’s insistence upon celibacy, for any other reason, has no biblical basis at all that I can find.
Nevertheless, many so-called “bible-believing Christians” still go on demanding celibacy for all people outside heterosexual marriage. Under this pressure, I’ve seen many folk become very seriously disillusioned over the years. Some became deeply depressed and hopeless, even suicidal. Others have embraced a more “liberal” theology and sought gay relationships. Most tragically, some have lost their faith altogether—a conclusion that I found heart-breaking, as a pastor committed to helping people find their hope in Christ.
By contrast, I saw that those who began, on their own initiative, to embrace the possibility of a same-sex relationship, daring to believe their intuitive sense that God was happy with this, benefited greatly. Common to all was an underlying longing for companionship and intimacy—a longing from the heart, that should not to be confused with a craving for or an addiction to deviant sex!
I began to realise that condemning all erotic intimacy between gay men as if it amounted to nothing more than the pursuit of lust, was to seriously misjudge people and their relationships. Gay & lesbian partnerships, entered into sincerely, with mutual commitment, provide a profound sense of personal value and with it a sense of belonging to a significant other in this life. And when Christ has central place, people’s morale— above all their hope in God—may well recover.
Seeing the pastoral issues first hand, I could no longer believe that the God who has promised to “reward those who earnestly seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6) would remain indifferent to the prayers of all who sought Him whole-heartedly. Nor could I believe that a God who truly cares, would abandon His disciples to frustration and despair—and condemn them to eternal punishment if they pursue a relationship out of love for another person, simply because the object of their love and desire happened to be someone of the same sex.
From the beginning (Genesis 2:18), the Bible recognises that man needs companionship. For those unable to marry, a situation Jesus acknowledged, (Matthew 19:11,12), to be told that they must comply with a demand for lifelong celibacy destroys all hope. Clearly gay people can benefit greatly from an intimate same-sex relationship—vastly preferable to the way of despair, and losing their faith in Christ! Moreover, it keeps many from sliding into situations, such as one-night stands, albeit followed by repentance—which can so easily become an addictive and most unhealthy pattern for life.
Considering this “new” perspective (new for us, that is) raised some hugely important questions for our ministry and created significant tensions.
In the eyes of many conservative evangelical Christians, seeing us move in this new direction prompted fears and accusation that we had capitulated to the modern world view, characteristic of a decadent society, in that we were now apparently approving a “gay lifestyle”, which in their eyes meant nothing more than a lifestyle of lust and promiscuity! But in fact, what we wanted was the space to stand back and reassess for ourselves what is Godly and beneficial and also recognise clearly what is not.
Trying to maintain a credible, authentic basis for Christian ministry in the eyes of our critics and remain faithful to what we believed God was saying to us was very difficult. Some of our supporters were quick to judge; they withdrew their financial support because they felt our commitment to biblical standards was being compromised. Reassuringly, quite a surprising number recognised with us that perhaps the time had come for reassessment; they also saw the need for a change of approach. And for those we endeavoured to help and support, we came to see that when they were able to find and develop a close committed same-sex relationship, this proved to be valid and valuable in itself.
Again, critics may argue that, “sin may appear to satisfy in the short term, but this is no excuse! The end does not justify the means!” However, if we were to go on regarding these matters as non-negotiable, I believe we would not only completely fail to recognise the acutely painful dilemmas for many gay people, but perhaps worse still, we would be closing our minds and hearts to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Why did Jesus call us to seek first the Kingdom of Heaven, if there was no possibility that God would ever have anything new to say about the subject; if there is no hope of finding a way forward, if celibacy is the only option for a gay Christian? Why study the Scriptures at all? Why seek God in intercessory prayer—if the matter will always be non-negotiable? Besides, what biblical criteria do we have for judging committed love between two people as sinful, except when this becomes and entirely self-centred pursuit of a kind that quickly leads to unfaithfulness or adultery?
What is Morally Acceptable?
Biblical law was given at a time when people saw nothing wrong with a man having many wives. Nowhere in the Bible do we find a law or an argument for monogamy. Personally I am glad that we do not accept polygamy today because I believe this profoundly demeans women and surely runs contrary to God’s creation plan. But why did the Bible not unequivocally forbid it? Perhaps it was not the most important thing in God’s eyes, by comparison with issues of justice, compassion and mercy towards others less fortunate than ourselves. Yet the Church seems to find it more important to judge how people make love to one another than to ensure that issues of compassion and justice are upheld.
And how was it that Moses dared to permit divorce, when it is clear from Jesus’ teaching (Matthew 19:8,9) that God had always been against it?
The lesson I find myself drawing from asking these questions is that in seeking God we may expect to find holy wisdom appropriate to our circumstances today. Indeed Jesus Himself clearly gave authority to His disciples to decide what is right and proper practice within the Christian community (see Matthew 16:10).
The pastoral concerns we face today require that we revisit thorny questions of sexuality and ask what is truly important to God? What constitutes morally upright behaviour and what does not? And surely the greatest lesson that both Moses and Paul have to teach us—is to seek God! They would surely not expect us to impose biblical statutes today that were drawn up for a bygone age. If that were the case, Paul would never have needed to seek God for himself, nor seek Him on behalf of those for whom he provided apostolic oversight! Knowing Biblical law would be enough. Seeking to have a personal relationship with God would be unnecessary. Yet having a personal relationship with God—requiring personal repentance, receiving forgiveness and discovering the love of the Father, is fundamental to being an evangelical Christian!
In his letter to the Romans, Chapter One, Paul describes a people whose depravity was the result of turning their backs on God—refusing to worship Him or give thanks, preferring to worship the creature rather than the Creator. Today, however, having met so many committed Christians who are themselves gay or lesbian, I have to ask myself how can it be appropriate to apply such judgement to those who have whole-heartedly sought God for many years? Clearly the sense of alienation from God and from themselves that many lesbian & gay people have experienced as a result of traditional Christian views of homosexuality—with the consequent sense of the guilt, shame and rejection—has contributed nothing to godly living, never mind healing.
How then, can we proclaim a message of healing from homosexuality with any integrity if God does not support that message. Moreover, I do not see what scriptural basis we have for doggedly insisting that any and every form of erotic expression outside monogamous heterosexual marriage is sinful.
Everyone needs to know the unconditional love of Christ; gay people are no exception. While it may be argued that pursuit of “recreational sex” calls for repentance, yet after years of earnest prayer and Bible study, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is scope in scripture for acceptance of committed, intimate same-sex relationships. This is not to say that just “anything goes”! Of course, for anyone seeking to be Christ-centred, they will naturally yearn to find a basic Christian moral framework and ethos for gay & lesbian relationships.
By the year 2000, it had become clear that the Lord was requiring of us a marked change of attitude, outlook and ministry policy.
Allowing the Lord to lead us
It is my hope that, as Christians, we will be willing to see what God is doing (John 5:19-21) amongst us. This means recognising the need and the heart-desire that sincere lesbian and gay Christians have for intimate relationship. If we neglect to do so, I believe we fail to recognise what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Churches in these days (Revelation 3:13).
There is no doubt that we have been and are being challenged—to understand the core issues better, to allow God to lead us forward and, in all we do, seek to honour the name of our Lord Jesus Christ! Over the last five to six years, we have made some progress towards finding measured answers to many pastoral issues raised. But the need to stand back from the polarised views that tragically are threatening to split the Church today, and take time out to seek God for ourselves, has been essential.
While our pastoral approach to homosexuality has changed, because of the experiences God has led us through these past 18 years, our basic understanding of the essential issues of the Christian faith remain the same. For me, seeking to love Jesus Christ and follow Him as Lord, ensuring He is given central place in our lives, has to remain at the core of the overall values of the Courage ministry.
© Jeremy Marks (First written 2002; this version revised October 2006)
‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.
‘Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets.’
Matthew 7:7–12 (NIV)