How my church became a safe place to share
I was once part of a small group (around ten people at the time) from a large church (several hundred people) in Cambridge that held to the orthodox view on biblical sexuality. We formed this group of various people within the church who experienced same-sex temptations. The leader of the group was Brian, who did not personally struggle with same-sex feelings, but he had a gift for overseeing our gatherings.
Brian eventually moved on to become pastor of a church in Liverpool and subsequently I (along with a few others) also moved to Liverpool and joined the same church. It was smaller than the Cambridge church, with fewer than a hundred in attendance.
Brian, I and another member of our church met as a small support group several times a year, over the next few years. We dubbed our group "Thessalonians", as we were doing well in the faith, but we needed some encouragement to keep going! A man from elsewhere joined in for a while, which made us think about widening the group to other local churches. After a while, he left, and we eventually found that "Thessalonians" was no longer required. Let me explain how this came to be.
How the church grew
Several things at our church happened over the following years that helped me grow in my confidence, so I was able to share more openly in the church about my personal struggles.
Firstly, Brian preached clearly, week by week, the simple life-changing truth that salvation comes by grace and not by our own merits or respectability. For each person in the church, we learnt individually what it means no longer to be dead in our sins but to be alive in Christ (Romans 5:17). To be a Christian is not to be proud and perfect, but is to receive much forgiveness. For me, this meant “I am saved by Jesus regardless of my ongoing same-sex desires”. Good teaching challenged our thinking about a hierarchy of sins – we are all in the same boat!
Another result of this faithful and consistent teaching was that I grew in self-confidence that my fellow Christians in the church would not look down on my struggles if they knew about them. This growing confidence in their grace eventually grew into a desire to share outside our small support group. Both of us felt able to share in our usual small groups, and with close friends within the church, and our special “Thessalonians” group was no longer required. The wider church was so soaked in the gospel that we felt safe to share more widely.
A pivotal moment was when the local Bishop came to visit. Many of us had concerns about his affirming position on biblical sexuality, and Brian arranged for concerned members of the church to meet with him, and for those of us involved in the “Thessalonians” group to share our stories. The group of invitees (10-15 people) had a get-together before meeting with the Bishop, and there we shared our testimonies. Although it was nerve-racking, I was so pleased to have shared with that group, as it meant I could then be more open when disclosing prayer points. It also meant that I could more tangibly experience their love and acceptance, knowing that they knew the whole truth. It was significant for me not to keep secrets from people whom God had ordained to be my family.
The other result of our sharing was that we felt that we had both blessed the church and glorified God by speaking about our struggles and victories over sin. It bolstered the confidence of our hearers to understand the personal impact of believing the orthodox position. Although I did not pretend that my same-sex temptations were an easy struggle, they could now see that God’s grace amid these temptations meant that He was sustaining me through them – it wasn’t a cruel and unrealistic imposition on me to live a chaste life, as they had perhaps feared. I learnt from this that it is not good for Christians to hide, downplay or avoid mention of their sin (“confess your sins to each other” – James 5:16).
Another formative moment for us as a church was hearing a lady sharing a testimony of her recent Christian life. Since the birth of her daughter, she had faced severe post-natal depression. It was key for us that the sharing was still fresh, and this challenged thoughts that we need to be “sorted” once we become Christians. She did not present a “done and dusted” struggle from the past, as this was still raw and unresolved for her. However, she was still willing to share it with us in all the messiness. We understood that the gospel speaks into our ongoing struggles through the Christian life and that our church family is to support one another and “encourage one another daily... so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Hebrews 3:13). Her testimony also helped the church move to a culture where people could be more honest with each other and work through what it means to be a Christian in difficult circumstances.
One more significant shift for the church was when five or six church members studied for the UK Biblical Counselling course (www.biblicalcounselling.org.uk). They ended up sharing what they had learnt with around twenty other people. Without the material being preached from the front, this had a broad impact on the wider church as the way they talked with people in the church deepened. The training helped people to connect their actual struggles and hardships with the gospel message, and to explore how the gospel speaks into those hard and real situations. In conversations after church meetings, it helped us to delve deeper into one another’s lives, using simple but meaningful questions. Rather than just responding to one another with platitudes (“I’ll pray about it” can be one of these), we involved one another in our lives through meaningful sharing, and with questions that were searching without being intrusive. We also talked more openly about Sunday sermons and applying them practically to our lives.
My fellow church-goers’ theology matters!
When Brian took on the role of pastor at the church, the congregation was a mixture. Some had an orthodox view, and some had an affirming view on biblical sexuality. My church in Cambridge had been more uniform in its theology, and this new combination felt unsafe to me. I knew I could face the temptation to compromise my theology on this matter, and that I would have sought a same-sex relationship if the Bible did not prohibit them. So, it was incredibly unhelpful for a believer within my fellowship to undermine what the Bible clearly tells about sexuality. I knew that a part of me would like to ignore the biblical teaching and just follow my feelings, so I needed my brothers and sisters to encourage me on the narrow way (Matthew 7:13-14).
In the end, several people who held to an affirming viewpoint on sexuality decided to make themselves at home in another church that agreed with their interpretation. Although this was a tough time for the church, I felt safer and more supported once I knew that my spiritual siblings stood with me in holding to the biblical position in this vulnerable area of my life. Although it is not a daily temptation, I have a perennial struggle in wondering whether I might be better off embracing a same-sex relationship. I entertain the thought sometimes that I might be ‘happier in the moment’ in a same-sex relationship, although I know it is not God’s design for my life. It can be quite hard to believe that it is better to follow Jesus than my personal desires. But, even though the Bible’s teaching on sexuality is so counter-cultural, it is good teaching, and I trust that God wants to bless me through it.
It is also often tough to have a constructive conversation with fellow Christians about biblical sexuality. Many who hold to an affirming perspective have come to their viewpoint because of close friends/family who have same-sex feelings. So, it can lead to highly charged and hurtful conversations, which are rarely, if ever, productive.
Recently, it has felt like the pendulum has swung back the other way as regards talking about my same-sex attraction. This was partly because of my semi-conscious fears about several Middle Eastern asylum seekers who have joined the church. My small group rapidly grew from around six people who knew me well, to then include three additional people from cultures which can be quite harsh in their view of homosexuality. It was not a conscious choice to assume that these people would treat me unkindly, but I noticed after a while that I had stopped sharing in my small group about my personal same-sex struggles. It is important for me to remember that we all have our own prejudices, but that the work of the Spirit in all Christians is effective in making us more Christ-like. Knowing that our church regularly and clearly teaches the gospel of grace (and having already seen the effect it has had on my church family) gives me the confidence to think I could be more open about my temptations with these newer members of our Christian family.
Seven years of growth
My church and I have both progressed along this path of honesty and openness over my seven years here. Our church still talks little about same-sex attractions, but clear, gracious biblical teaching has allowed us to catch this threefold vision:
1. God is good
2. The Church is God’s family
3. God calls us to follow Him amid our difficulties
So, consistent biblical teaching about God’s love and forgiveness has gradually encouraged us to take the Bible seriously in every area of life, and apply it to our struggles.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2021 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.
Download the Summer 2021 edition of Ascend