When Silence is not Golden
God uses words. He spoke the universe into being. He gave words to the prophets. Jesus preached. Followers of Jesus are commissioned to share His message. But despite the call to speak God’s message, the Church has always faced the pressure to keep quiet, especially when it comes to articulating areas of the Christian message that are more counter-cultural than others. For the modern Church in the West, the pressure to not talk about God’s perspective on same-sex relationships has grown.
The Whole Counsel of God
To the Ephesian elders Paul said, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God”(Acts 20:27). This is an important statement. Paul is warning the Ephesian church leaders that “fierce wolves” (v29) were about to enter, and false teachers will arise from within the church (v30). This should humble us that so soon after powerful apostolic ministry (Acts 19) this New Testament church could be tempted to swerve from the truths handed down. We see the result of this in 1 Timothy 1, where Paul’s enforcer and ministry partner was urged to oppose the false teachers in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3). The “whole counsel of God” was passed and needed to be brought back again.
Sometimes false teaching can be easy to spot. In contrast, a church slipping into silence in one area of the “whole counsel of God” may go unnoticed. For Paul, the whole counsel of God would have included both, “repentance toward God and [to have] faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). So, it is a severe problem to keep quiet about what we’re called repent from or define as sin.
There are multiple potential reasons for church silence in the area of same-sex relationships. It could be down to cowardice or people pleasing. It could perhaps be because certain church leaders are ashamed of the gospel, or embarrassed by the Bible’s teaching. Church silence may be driven by the need to protect a church’s ‘brand’ or as a way of trying to ensure unity (although this unity will inevitably be false unity).
Now, of course, at times church silence could be wise. Taking time to carefully reflect and having a positive, thought-through, biblical, sensitive message is not a bad thing. We should commend not being too hasty to rush into emotive topics and should ensure there are pastoral structures in place before speaking on them. Silence, however, is not a healthy long-term approach. To be silent on something so important is immensely damaging on several levels. Let’s explore each in turn:
1. Silence is Discouraging for Same-Sex Attracted Christians
As a result of Church silence, I’ve heard people question if they were wrong to believe the clear teaching of Scripture. Because their churches never mention the topic, I’ve heard people express a feeling of isolation because their church doesn’t seem to support them in this area of their Christian walk.
Following the teaching of Scripture is not easy. Jesus calls us to daily take up our cross and follow Him: to walk that narrow path that leads to life. To live for Jesus in the area of sexual ethics is a battle, and that’s especially true when church members get the impression that their own leadership is too scared, or possibly too embarrassed, to lay out what the Lordship of Jesus looks like in this area of life.
2. Silence is Unfair for Church Members
If the Church doesn’t speak on topics like sexuality, the world will still be articulating its seductive message. We don’t live in a vacuum, and it’s important to remember that the influence of the prevailing culture is a powerful one. For example, the Christian message of love, identity and freedom are very different from the general culture’s conception. Church silence can lead to the world’s narratives of “being true to who you really are” or “being free to love who you want to love” gaining traction over the Christian understandings of love, identity and freedom.
Church silence can cause congregation members not to realise how counter-cultural Jesus followers are to be. Those that don’t experience same-sex attraction will also miss out on understanding the ways that discipleship is costly for others, meaning they may not be as inspired to live out the cost of discipleship in their own lives.
3. Silence is Destructive for Seekers
We never want to create a stumbling block for the gospel. That said, however, Jesus didn’t hide the cost of discipleship. In fact, He actively encouraged people to first count the cost of being His disciple (Luke 14:25-35). That’s quite a different evangelistic strategy to many I’ve heard. There will be different costs for individuals who make Jesus their Lord.
Not being honest with seekers about the potential costs can cause problems down the line. For example, a gay person may have come to a church and have heard nothing taught on sexuality. He could end up shocked and angry when he finally does discover what the church actually believes.
4. Silence Brings Judgement on Church Leaders
Any move to privatise ethics and outsource the ramifications of Christ’s Lordship is a dereliction of a leader’s duty. It’s distressing to think that those taking an approach of silence in church leadership will give an account for their neglect (Hebrews 13:17) along with the damage it inflicts.
If churches are not silent, how often should they be speaking on this topic? Well, the following questions are quite useful to reflect on. First, how seriously is same-sex sexual sin treated in Scripture? The answer is very seriously (1 Corinthians 6:8-11). Second, how pressing is this topic in the broader culture? The answer is very pressing. Third, how often does the Bible mention same-sex sexual sin? Here the answer is not too often, which should help ensure balance and perspective. However, more general sexual sin is mentioned quite often.
The answers to those three questions should help us see how damaging church silence is. When it comes to omitting God’s teaching, we can be sure that silence is never golden.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2019 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend.