There are a number of things churches can do to help Christians with SSA:
1. Make it easy to talk about
Pastors as well as church members need to know that homosexuality is not just a political issue but a personal one, and that there will likely be some within their own church family for whom it is a painful struggle. When the issue comes up in the life of the church, it needs to be recognised that this is an issue Christians wrestle with too, and that the church needs to be ready and equipped to walk alongside such brothers and sisters.
Many Christians still speak about homosexuality in hurtful and pejorative ways. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard Christians (even some in positions of church leadership) use phrases like: “That’s so gay” to describe something they don’t like. Such comments are only going to make their Christian brothers and sisters struggling with SSA feel completely unable to open up. When I first began to share my own experiences with friends at church, I was struck by how many mature Christians felt they needed to apologise for comments they’d made in the past about homosexuality, which they now realised may have been hurtful.
Key to helping people feel safe about sharing issues of SSA is having a culture of openness about the struggles and weaknesses we experience in general in the Christian life. Christian pastor and writer Timothy Keller has said that churches should feel more like the waiting room for a doctor and less like a waiting room for a job interview. In the latter we all try to look as competent and impressive as we can. Weaknesses are buried and hidden. But in a doctor’s waiting room we assume that everyone there is sick and needs help. And this is much closer to the reality of what is going on in church.
By definition, Christians are weak. We depend on the grace and generosity of God. We are the “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5 v 3). It is a mark of a healthy church that we can talk about these things, and so we need to do all we can to encourage a culture of being real about the hard things of the Christian life.
But there is a caution: having made it easy for someone to talk about their sexual struggles, we must not then make the mistake of always talking to them about it. They may need to be asked about how things are going from time to time, but to make this the main or only thing you talk about with them can be problematic. It may reinforce the false idea that this is who they really are, and it may actually overlook other issues that they may need to talk about more. Sexuality may not be their greatest battle.
2. Honour singleness
Those for whom marriage is not a realistic prospect need to be affirmed in their calling to singleness. Our fellowships need to uphold and honour singleness as a gift and take care not unwittingly to denigrate it. Singles should not be thought or spoken of as loose ends that need tying up. Nor should we think that every single person is single because they’ve been too lazy to look for a marriage partner.
I remember meeting another pastor who, on finding out I was single, was insistent that I should be married by now and proceeded to outline immediate steps I needed to take to rectify this. He was very forthright and only backed down when I burst into tears and told him I was struggling with homosexuality. It is not an admission I should have needed to make. We need to respect that singleness is not necessarily a sign that someone is postponing growing up.
3. Remember that church is family
Paul repeatedly refers to the local church as the “God’s household” (for example, 1 Timothy 3 v 15). It is the family of God, and Christians are to be family to one another.
So Paul encourages Timothy to treat older men as fathers, “younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters” (1 Timothy 5 v 1-2). The church is to think of itself as immediate family. Nuclear families within the church need the input and involvement of the wider church family; they are not designed to be self-contained. Those that open up their family life to others find that it is a great two-way blessing.
Singles get to experience some of the joys of family life; children get to benefit from the influence of other older Christians; parents get to have the encouragement of others supporting them; and families as a whole get to learn something of what it means to serve Christ by being outward-looking as a family.
4. Deal with biblical models of masculinity and femininity, rather than cultural stereotypes
Battles with SSA can sometimes be related to a sense of not quite measuring up to expected norms of what a man or woman is meant to be like. So when the church reinforces superficial cultural stereotypes, the effect can be to worsen this sense of isolation and of not quite measuring up.
For example, to imply that men are supposed to be into sports or fixing their own car, or that women are supposed to enjoy craft or to suggest that they will want to “talk about everything”, is to deal in cultural rather than biblical ideas of how God has made us. It can actually end up overlooking many ways in which people are reflecting some of the biblical aspects of manhood and womanhood that culture overlooks.
5. Provide good pastoral support
Pastoral care for those with SSA does not need to be structured, but it does need to be visible. Many churches now run support groups for members battling with SSA; others provide mentoring or prayer-partner schemes.
Those with SSA need to know that the church is ready to support and help them, and that it has people with a particular heart and insight to be involved in this ministry. There may be issues that need to be worked through, and passages from the Bible that need to be studied and applied with care and gentle determination. There may be good friendships that need to be cultivated and accountability put in place, and there will be the need for long-term community. These are all things the local church is best placed to provide.
It has been a few years now since I first started telling close Christian friends that I battle with homosexual feelings. It was a lengthy process and in some ways quite emotionally exhausting. But it was one of the best things I have ever done. The very act of sharing something so personal with someone else is a great trust, and in virtually every case it strengthened and deepened the friendship. Close friends have became even closer. I also found that people felt more able to open up to me about personal things in their own lives, on the basis that I had been so open with them. There have been some wonderful times of fellowship as a result.
It has now been several months since I shared about the issue of sexuality publicly with my church family. Again, it has been a great blessing to have done so. There has been a huge amount of support—people asking how they can help and encourage me in this issue, many saying that they are praying for me daily. Others have said how much it means to them that I would share something like this. It has also been a great encouragement to me that it does not seem to have defined how others see me. Aside from the expressions of love and support, business was back to normal very quickly.
Sam Allberry has been a pastor at St Mary’s Church, Maidenhead, UK since 2008. Prior to that he worked as the pastor for students at St Ebbe’s Church, Oxford, UK. His passion is helping people understand the significance and wonder of biblical truth. He is the author of Is God Anti-Gay? You can follow him on Twitter: @SamAllberry
(Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Is God Anti-Gay? by Sam Allberry available from The Good Book Company, 2014. It appears here with the permission of publisher. For more information visit The Good Book Company.)