Given that our secular age is subjective and relativistic and therapeutic, the reality of objective, transcendent truth is practically incomprehensible to our neighbors and friends, including many within our churches as well. Unless and until that is challenged clearly and directly, what is said is liable to be understood and filtered through such subjectivism and relativism. Thus, the presentation of sin as primarily psychological, interpersonal, and sociological will invariably be understood on such terms. Such sin cannot make sense of why we needed the Son of God to assume our flesh, bear our sin, plunge down into death and hell, and rise again.
During 2014, I sensed the ground beneath us was shifting. As a pastor, I determined it was necessary to speak more directly and firmly in addressing ideas that were becoming culturally and socially entrenched. I realized our reluctance, silence even, was not serving the people within our churches, who were being daily instructed by our surrounding secular culture. Furthermore, given that prevailing ideas about sexuality and gender pertained to our basic self-understanding as human beings, this offered an opportunity for us to know ourselves as male and female image bearers of God, fallen in sin, called to redemption in Christ, and to commend such knowledge as right and good and true. The interest in, and even volatility of, the subject matter could serve to have us know our own hearts before God, enriching our understanding that we are righteous in Christ, and not in ourselves. In other words, this was a teaching moment.
As we were going through a sermon series on 1 Corinthians at the church where I served, in preaching from 1 Corinthians 6, I taught on same-sex sexual relations and desire. I stated the Scriptures were clear regarding their sinfulness, and that this wasn’t an “agree to disagree” matter. In so doing, I spoke of this particular sin and temptation within our shared and desperate plight as sinners, who are justified through faith in Jesus Christ. Within our young church situated in a highly secular and skeptical cultural context, the sermon seemed to strike a chord on the whole. A professing Christian who left the church, who held an “affirming” view, admitted that I “tried really hard to be compassionate.” (that I “tried” was the best he could offer)
A point I made during the course of the sermon, which was necessary to address a culturally potent falsehood, was to forcefully denounce the comparison of the Christian understanding of sexuality to racism. Such association is a smear intended to discredit, and is wholly without merit.
Race is an amoral categorization of human beings based on appearance, physical characteristics, and ancestry. On the other hand, the way we experience and express our sexuality as male and female image bearers has to do with self-understanding, internal desires, and behaviors, which are moral or immoral, disobedient and sinful or obedient and pleasing to God. For example, “transgender” is not a kind of person one is, but a naming and identity opposed to God’s created goodness and definition. Sex has to do with love, marriage, procreation, and family. Neither race nor the unjust differentiation and brutal mistreatment of human beings on account of race have any bearing on this. Simply stated, race and sex are two starkly different categories.
Shortly afterward, in a discussion with a group of pastors, there was an overt expression of disbelief that I had dared to directly address the comparison of race and sexuality. This sense that I said what I’m “not supposed to say” struck me.
Secularization Meets Church
These fellow pastors were evaluating what I conveyed to them based on what I will refer to as the Secular-Sensitive ministry model. While the Secular-Sensitive ministry model often speaks of idols and warns against idolatry, it was clear there were certain cultural idols that were untouchable and not to be provoked. The thought I had in subsequently reflecting on our conversation was: “You cannot minister to people whose good opinion you are governed by, and whose hostility you determine must be avoided.”
It seems to me that in the Secular Sensitive model, the goal of the church service, and especially of the sermon, is to expertly and precisely fit the gospel into the unconverted heart. This is supposedly based on the truth of our common humanity as image bearers of God, and of common grace, in that God has not left “himself without witness” (Acts 14:17), but there is evidence of his goodness and presence within all cultures and times and places.
What is a sound theological conviction, with explanatory power, is misapplied, twisted, and hardened into a rigid and pervasive rule confining the gospel to being the fulfillment of misdirected desires and what might be worthwhile convictions.
What’s communicated is something like: “Look, unbelieving person, if you give him a chance, you’ll find that Jesus fits right into what you already believe. Jesus measures up to your expectations. Don’t you see how wonderful he is!” That’s the way of establishing common ground and is the platform from which the call to turn to Jesus is presented.