There’s an accusation doing the rounds that Christian churches that speak about sex, are not only ignoring other sins by doing so, but are doing so in order to ignore other sins.
They’re speaking about sex in order to give other sins a hall pass. So sins such as slander, gossip, greed etc are being allowed to slip by either by distraction, or deception.
Churches and ministry staff are straining the gnat of sexual sin, while at the same time blithely hoovering up the dromedary of other big sins.
It’s as if we are all shouting “Hey look what SHE’S doing!” in order to draw people’s attention away from what we’re doing.
Now this accusation has been heard on the lips of many of those outside the church, some inside the church, or from those who have left for a variety of reasons.
But is it true? Is it actually the case?
Now there is a grain of truth to all such statements, but if you are a younger Christian going to an evangelical church and you’re hearing this all the time, you might be wondering if this ongoing, and increasingly strident, accusation is matched by the ongoing facts.
You’re wondering: As I grow up in the church and the culture hardens against us and promotes sexuality as the new liberty, is sex all I am going to hear about in church?
You’re worried that as our culture champions the sexual practices and identities that the Bible speaks against, that we’re running the risk of becoming a single issue party.
You’ve got friends and family who are accusing the church of exactly that. And it’s hard to navigate those relationships as a result.
And if we’re going to be a single issue party, what about those other matters; greed, slander, gossip? Not much fun in a church that’s sexually tight, but loose in the rest.
Let me assure you, if that is your concern, the vast bulk of churches are not ignoring all of the other bigs sins and focussing merely on the sexual ones. Not at all. In fact the accusation is a wide and lazy one, borne from little evidence, and birthed in not a little prejudice.
Indeed when churches do focus on sexual matters, it’s primarily because that’s the cultural moment. It’s a response to the current sex tsunami.
There was a time when the culture sneered at the church because it said we were too focussed on sex. I think recent years have proven just where the locus of that focus lies, and it’s not the church.
But more than that, I want to assure you that the presence of sin – all sin – in the life of the church or the believer, and indeed the pastor his or herself, is something that the church takes very seriously indeed.
Here’s are three arguments for my case.
Our Weekly Bible Teaching
Churches from my tradition take the teaching of the Bible week in, week out, seriously. Churches that have preaching and teaching programs that go through consecutive chapters of a Bible book, find that sex is not the only topic that comes up. Far from it.
Indeed, as we currently preach through the idolatrous practices of 1 and 2 Kings in our church, the sophisticated idols of security, significance, self-fulfilment (in all its guises), greed and violence, come through strongly as application and pastoral concern.
Our concern is for a congregation that finds its security in Jesus, its identity in him. That the culture is pushing hard for people to find their security in themselves, their identity in their sexual identity, may mean we have to focus on this in this particular cultural moment, but never at the expense of the other stuff. Never.
And we call on heterosexual married couples not to find their identity, primarily, in that role either. I conducted a wedding last week in which I exhorted the happy couple – and they were happy – to reject the idea that the other person completes them. That is not a Christian response to marriage. Jesus completes us. To expect some other person to do so is to place upon them a weight of expectation they were not designed to bear.
Hence we don’t affirm heterosexual sex in and of itself either. Nor the hunt for a sexual partner to marry.
And even in marriage, if it is an abusive relationship, we don’t affirm sex. I know pastors who, at the hint of abuse in a marriage, are on the porch pretty much prepped to manhandle the bloke (and it usually is a bloke) out the door.
The definitive proof of a much wider focus than sex, of course, would be to listen to sermons a church preaches.
The pulpit/platform/stage is the place where the church’s narrative is most clearly defined. Everything else filters from that. The evidence is in the sermons. Listen to them. They will tell you what the focus is. Hence you can go to our website providencechurch.org.au and listen to the sermons if you need further proof.
So if you are a young person growing up in our church, then your sexual purity is important to us, and we will keep challenging the culture’s take on sex.
But we’ll also challenge you as you find a career; we’ll be asking you where your identity lies, what it means to understand work as a vocation; how to start being generous with time and money before mortgages and kids swamp you; how to look out for the interests of others, both inside and outside church; and how to live a meaningful Christ-savoured, people-centred life in this age of self-focus and individualism.
We’ll challenge you as to how you will live your public life. Will you be more enamoured publicly with being seen as a political conservative or a political liberal (especially on social media)? Will that be your primary identity, the tribe around which you gather, rather than an identity as a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, part of a local body of believers of all political stripes who disagree, but nevertheless love each other?
Will you love your (growing list of) enemies, the older you get? We’ll teach you how to do that too. You’re going to need it.
Our preaching and teaching will demonstrate all of this, and more. And it will do so because we’re letting the Bible, not our hobby horses, determine the preaching/teaching focus.
Our Ongoing Pastoral Work
Most pastors I know have spent a lot of time dealing with singles and couples about sexual sins. They have counselled many people about the way in which their sexual temptations have been trapping them and causing great grief in their private lives and their relationships.
But all of that pales besides the vast amount of pastoral work being conducted in churches where other “big” sins are present. Pastoral work in these areas can be exhausting and pernicious, which often makes up the bulk of burn-out issues for pastors.
Mediating between warring factions; dealing with slander against church members; calling people away from gossip and towards speaking words of encouragement; it all takes up time. Time and a lot of energy.
In my experience crisis pastoral care and intervention in these matters is far more frequent – and more exhausting – than in areas of sexuality.
To think for one moment that pastors and other ministry staff just wave an airy hand at greed or gossip is to both insult them, and to accuse them of sheer stupidity. Those things can tear a church apart pretty quickly, causing enormous hurt and damage. These are sins that need dealt with at the root level because they are so ingrained.
Galatians 5 says this:
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
It’s interesting that sexual sins begin and conclude the list. But right slap, bang in the middle is all the other stuff too. And pastors, and ministry teams and other leaders, who have a genuine concern that their congregation members inherit the kingdom of God pay careful attention to such things.
Do those who accuse churches of merely focussing on sexual sins really think pastors believe that people will get a hall pass from God on the last day for focussing on the “big bad sex stuff”, at the expense of jealousy, fits of rage and selfish ambition?
I can assure you that anyone who displays such unrepentant sins in our congregation would necessitate serious pastoral intervention, and would be disqualified from any leadership role. Not simply for the sake of our church, but for the sake of their souls, for we do not wish them to be found out on the Last Day.
The truth is, like all other sins, sexual sins in the church are to be dealt with the same way: with the gospel. Hence Galatians 6:1 states this:
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.
There isn’t some specialist type of intervention for sexual sin that is different to other sins. It’s all the same. Restore each other – and gently! And there is not necessarily some specialist types trained to intervene. True, some pastoral issues require specialists and we ought to know when to refer.
But the pastoral work of the church is not simply the repose of the pastors. We are called to train people for the works of ministry, including this ministry of restoration. Every Spirit-filled believer is to do the priestly work of restoring each other before God, and so echo the new creation work of Christ.
Which brings me to my last point, and the one that is creating the tension.
We Identify Sin As Sin Because God Does
They say that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. In other words, how we define something is determined by the standpoint from where we see it.
And the biggest problem of the Sexular Culture, and it is explicit in documents such as the SOCEsurvivor’s manifesto on gay conversion therapy, is that what the Bible calls bondage and something to be mourned, it calls liberty and something to be celebrated.
In fact, the manifesto defines one aspect of abuse as the withholding of leadership positions in churches from practicing LGBTIQ people, and indeed makes the claim that such practices ought to be celebrated as normative by churches, and calls for legislation to encourage this.
Of no other sin is this the case.
Gordon Gecko may have said that “Greed is good”, but that’s become a famous quote precisely because we’re shocked by his brazen admission.
We’re not watching movies about all of those wolves on Wall St and being called to admire their rapacious appetite for wealth and power. We’re being called to be appalled by it. We’re being directed towards seeing how destructive it is, which it is, as directors such as Martin Scorsese so skilfully observe.
But not so when it comes to sex.
Often those accusing the Church of being a single issue community play one card and one card only about sex.
And it’s this: the way we express ourselves sexually (except for a few taboos that are slowly withering on the vine as I write), is intrinsically a good thing because it affirms the reality about who I am. And to suppress this, reject it, or try to speak into it as if it were not, is to do violence.
Personally I think we are a few decades off from being able to even have a decent conversation about this matter in the public square. And for some good reason. Many gay people have been ostracised from the church, while pointing out other obvious sins among church members, not least of all the gossip and slander that came their way.
And just to make the point, it’s hard for a church to make a case agains SSM where adultery and easy divorce even among church members is permitted, or a blind eye is turned to it.
I’ve recently had to deal with the refugees of such cases, despairing spouses who suddenly find themselves on the outer of their old church because it refuses to discipline their adulterous partner, or indeed has refused to say it was a sin needing dealt with in the first place.
But, as I think about it, it’s not only sex that the culture reframes. Perhaps our culture does call a lot of other evils good also.
Social media has been particularly useful at proving this to be the case. The deep slander, hatred and gossip that occurs on these platforms is always explained away as “my right to speak my mind”, “showing that person that they can’t get away with that”, “standing up for the truth”, etc, etc.
And greed? We just call that lifestyle. It never tops out and hence is never identified as what it is: an insatiable appetite for more.
And idolatry? You can have it all. Significance and security in your job, your ability to juggle job and home, your ability to be CEO or whatever.
Or perhaps the most invasive self-righteous Pharisaical practice of our increasingly divided society: our settled political and sociological positions that allow us to self-righteously sniff at either “the reactive peasants” or “the liberal elites”. There are a lot of logs floating around in a lot of eyes, that’s for sure.
John Owen said that we kill sin or it kills us. And the first step towards doing that is identifying sin as sin. For if we cannot do that; if we are no longer publicly permitted to do that in terms of sex; or if we fail to do that in terms of other sins; then we as pastors and churches are leading people by the nose to their deaths.
So next time someone dismissively states that churches focus on sexual sins to the exclusion of all others, remember how seriously the Bible and many, many churches take the pastoral work of calling their people to die to sin – all sin – and to live to righteousness. And be confident that that is the norm for many, many churches, and not the exception.