FIRST-PERSON: Accepting & affirming the repentant

SAN FRANCISCO (BP) -- Nineteen years ago, my wife and I began a journey.

We both were struggling with our identities -- my sexual identity and her identity as a woman and a wife. Our marriage had been shattered and both of us, in unique and personal ways, had experienced a profound and fresh connection with our Savior.

We knew we needed the local church. We desperately wanted a place where we could be honest about our struggles. Yet, most churches that seemed open to our struggles also seemed vague about homosexuality and sexual sin.

In some ways I felt safe in those churches as I imagined they would not reject me for my struggle. But in greater ways, I was leery.

I knew I was vulnerable, and their nuanced language made me fear their pastors might, in some way, encourage me to accept the very thing God was calling me to lay down at the cross. We ended up at a Baptist church, where we kept our struggles secret but received solid teaching. God shored up our spiritual foundation there and it was instrumental in our healing. Joyfully, we later found a church that figured out how to meld authenticity with a commitment to God's Word. Our healing was exponential in that place!

Today, many mainline denominations are no longer vague on sexuality and have moved to a place of affirming homosexual identity and expression. Meanwhile, conservative evangelical churches, motivated by both the cultural wave of pro-gay sentiment and a genuine desire to share the Gospel, have made great strides in crafting a message for the gay community designed to be less argumentative and more inclusive.

I fear, however, that churches which have chosen to speak more kindly and nuanced on issues like homosexuality and sexual sin, or which have chosen to say nothing for fear of saying too much, might be trying to reach one disconnected group outside the church at the cost of neglecting an important group within the church. In our desire to be more welcoming to and accepting of the gay community, have we shut our doors to the community of the conflicted and repentant? Are we as safe for repentant gay men and women as we are for the unrepentant?

Homosexual expression may not be worse than any other sin, but it is unique as the only sinful behavior that is protected, celebrated and endorsed on an increasingly broad scale. When someone chooses to walk away from homosexuality, based on the work of the Spirit to convict them of their sin and give them hope for something more, they are not just walking away from behavior. They are walking away from community and identity and, in many ways, safety.

I remember well the strong pull back to the accepting, caring gay community in the early days of my repentance. Had my church in any way endorsed as "OK" what I had left behind, I'm not sure I would have stayed the course. I may not have discovered the amazing life God had for me as I lived out my repentance and grew into all that He had for me within His perfect boundaries for sexuality.

Diminishing or skimming over parts of God's Word, so as not to offend, helps no one. As Jeremiah condemned false prophets of his day, our lack of clarity may well be offering people peace where, in fact, there is no peace. The church may be leading the very people Jesus came to save to a dangerous place -- not only because it may impact someone's salvation, but also because it impacts what we are promised in Jesus -- joy, peace, abundance, fulfillment, purpose and so much more.

There was no nuance in the proclamations of the Old Testament prophets. And Jesus and the New Testament writers never minced words -- on sin or on love. The church need not fear the hard words about sin and must not ignore the hard words of love. Sin destroys, and if we really believe that, we won't fear calling sin out. Love restores, and if we really believe that, we will extend it in the context of truth to the repentant and the unrepentant alike.

The early days of repentance, no matter the sin, can be the most precarious. Satan will work to convince repentant sinners that repentance was not necessary, or that what they have left behind is more valuable than what they are being offered. Clear confirmation of what God calls us to in repentance is vital in the process of repentance and sanctification.

God designed the church to stand with repentant sinners -- encouraging them, teaching them, supporting them and loving them as they go through the withdrawals that always accompany walking away from the mind-altering, numbing nature of sinful behavior.

If we ignore the call to repentance because we want to attract the unrepentant, we will have nothing real to offer the unrepentant when they show up. And we will, perhaps inadvertently, minimize the magnitude of the miracle of conviction in those who are moved to repentance. There may be few who choose to enter that narrow gate, but heaven celebrates each one.

Far be it from us to cause those precious ones to stumble back into what God has called them to leave behind.

Mike Goeke, associate pastor of First Baptist Church San Francisco, has been in full-time ministry since leaving his law practice in 2001. He speaks and writes on issues related to life, Christianity, culture and sexuality. Goeke is a graduate of Baylor University and Texas Tech School of Law.
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