Downplaying the Sin of Homosexuality Won't Win the Next Generation
As you know if you've been reading my blogs, I've been an advocate for years for Christians to be more understanding and kind to LGBTQ+ people, while still holding to the Bible's historical teaching on marriage and sexuality. However Andy Stanley, lead pastor of Northpoint Church in Atlanta appears to be teaching people to be understanding and kind to LGBTQ+ people but failing to make it clear what he, or Northpoint believes for fear of discouraging people from the Gosple. Next week my blog is on the very subject of how Christians should present the gospel to non-Christians.
This is a guest blog posted by Pastor J.D. Greer, on the Gospel Coalition website on February 9, 2023 pointing out the danger of Stanley's ambiguity.
Much has been made of Andy Stanley’s recently surfaced comments about church leaders and homosexuality—specifically his counsel on how the church must approach this issue if we’re to advance the gospel into the next generation.
The comments occurred at his Drive Conference at Northpoint Church in 2022, and they’ve since been taken offline by the church. However, enough YouTube snippets and published notes exist that we can gather the gist of what was said:
"What does this have to do with the next generation?
Everything. . . . As long as they think that we don’t understand that, they can’t hear us. . . . A gay person who still wants to attend church after the way the church has treated them . . . I’m telling you . . . they have more faith than I do. . . . They still love God.
You are not a prophet. You are a pastor—very different role. Prophets drop in and drop truth bombs, and then they get on their chariot and go to the next place and drop truth. . . . That’s not what we’re doing. We are leading people. We are not pace setters. Pastors set direction and they monitor the pace; they do not set the pace.
I know the “clobber passages,” alright? We’ve got to figure this out. And if you don’t . . . you can say goodbye to the next generation.
Pastors who declare they are affirming or not affirming are taking the church away from someone unnecessarily."
Some have reported that Northpoint assures them neither they nor Stanley is “affirming.” No official statement exists, however, where Northpoint or Stanley endorse an exclusively traditional Christian marriage and sex ethic, though many have asked for one. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, given one of Stanley’s reported comments at Drive was that identifying yourself (or your church) as either “affirming” or “not affirming” will alienate someone. Thus we have to assume Northpoint’s assurances only mean they’re not “affirming,” not that they’re “not affirming.” Whether this is true only Stanley can clarify, and I hope he’ll do it soon. I do know that they require those seeking leadership to affirm that they are not engaging in or pursuing a same-sex relationship.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume they are indeed “not affirming,” meaning they believe the Bible teaches God’s only plan for sex is between a man and a woman in the context of marriage, and anything else is sinful. Let’s assume the reason they’re hesitant to publicize this is that they don’t want to create obstacles for LGBT+ individuals who are searching for God.
One of the biggest influences Stanley’s ministry has had on me is his focus on reaching people. I remember hearing a message nearly 15 years ago where he expounded on Acts 15:19, saying, “I wish I could write this over the door of every church in America: we should not make it hard for Gentiles who are turning to God.” His words moved me deeply, and I wept in my seat. I’ve repeated those words often at The Summit Church.
For Stanley, this isn’t about a cultural argument to be won; it’s about people to be reached. Relationships come before truth, he often says. Not at the expense of truth, he’d add—just before it. Hard conversations need to happen across coffee tables, not pontificated from stages or dogmatized in documents. I know of members of our church—godly, Bible-believing, mature Christians—who had older kids struggling with questions of this nature. Those parents left our church to go to another where the gospel is preached but this subject is never broached, churches similar to the one Stanley calls for. Some have said, “If my kids have any chance of maintaining belief in the gospel and staying connected to the church, this has to become a nonissue for a while.”
So that’s the question: Does downplaying this issue give us an evangelistic advantage? Could it be considered faithful to the Great Commission—even necessary for reaching the next generation?
The Good: Thinking like a Missionary
Let me start with the good. First, we may consider our timing when introducing a difficult aspect of Christian teaching and pressing for resolution on it. At times we may tell a skeptic or seeker, “If you’re having trouble with some particular Christian moral teaching, we can come back to it. Wrestle with the claims of Christ first—whether he is Lord and whether he rose from the dead—and then, when you become convinced of that, work your way outward to his teachings.” While we’re never free to ignore, downplay, or equivocate on the Bible’s teaching about sex, even Jesus didn’t present everything at once (John 16:12).
While we’re never free to ignore, downplay, or equivocate on the Bible’s teaching about sex, even Jesus didn’t present everything at once.
Second, in 21st-century America, pastors must posture themselves not only as guardians of the faith delivered once for all to the saints but also as missionaries to an increasingly pagan culture. In Evangelism in the Early Church, Christian apologist Michael Green makes a distinction between “missionary” and “defender of orthodoxy”: “There is a fundamental difference between the defender of orthodoxy, who is anxious to maximize the gap between authentic Christianity and all deviations from it, and the apologist [read: missionary], who is concerned to minimize the gap between himself and his potential converts.”
As Green explains, both are necessary. When I served as a missionary to Muslims in Southeast Asia, I was constantly having to don both hats—sometimes emphasizing how distinct the gospel is from Islam, sometimes capitalizing on a question presented by Islam as a bridge for the gospel. You never take off either hat, but knowing which one to face forward in a particular conversation requires discernment from the Holy Spirit.
As Lesslie Newbigin famously argued, today’s pastors in the West must relearn the skills of the missionary. We’re no longer primarily chaplains to a Christianized culture or merely custodians of doctrine. We need more pastor-missionaries. Our teaching on homosexuality should sound not only like a denunciation of immorality but also like an invitation to conversation.
The Bad: Practical and Biblical Problems
Up to this point, you might be thinking I support Stanley’s approach, or at least sympathize with it. But I don’t. Let me suggest one practical problem and two biblical ones.
1. Practical Problem
Having a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to homosexuality is outdated. In the 1990s, certain seekers came into the church with an “I won’t talk about this as long as you won’t” attitude. That was the spirit of the age. “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” became the tagline for President Bill Clinton’s approach to talking about (or not talking about) homosexuality in the military.
We’re long past that. Every unbeliever who steps into our church assumes he already knows what we believe about homosexuality for at least three reasons. First, Christians across the globe have consistently believed in the sanctity of heterosexual marriage for 2,000 years (see Don Fortson and Rollin Gram’s survey). Second, evangelicals are known as Bible people, and even a casual reader of the Bible easily discerns the Bible’s disapproval of homosexuality. Third, the media reminds audiences of the above every chance they get in order to portray Christians as bigots.
That means the college students and young professionals coming into our church know what we believe—our convictions about sexuality aren’t dirty little state secrets they only gradually learn. They assume they already know what we believe and that we’re as hateful about it as the media says we are. So I start with no moral standing in their eyes. They may listen to me for inspiration, but they’d never think of submitting to me as an authority. And truly, if we’re as hateful and bigoted as the media says we are, they shouldn’t listen to us.
What they think we believe about homosexuality is a “defeater belief,” to use Tim Keller’s phrase—a reason they won’t even consider the claims of Christ. The most strategic thing I can do is clarify what we actually believe: it’s possible to love someone and treat her with respect, dignity, and honor even while disagreeing with her convictions. If I don’t deal with this awkward elephant in the room, this issue remains the silent “defeater” that keeps thoughtful seekers from considering meaningful union with the historic church. Why would they ever want to consider becoming one of those people?
Every unbeliever who steps into our church assumes they already know what we believe about homosexuality.
Even if you could, for a while, keep everyone engaged with inspirational teaching, practical life lessons, and world-class music, at some point this subject will come up—through their Bible reading, in their small groups, or over dinner with church friends. If you haven’t publicly demonstrated how to talk about homosexuality, somebody will leave confused, hurt, and angry.
Sure, when I have that first coffee with a gay person attending our church, I don’t slide our sexual ethics statement paper across the table and ask him or her to initial every “whereas” clause before we begin. But there’s a difference between not bringing something up initially and refusing to ever bring it up at all.
As Keller, who pastored in Manhattan for 30 years and reached thousands of secular skeptics, says, “not talking about this” is no longer an option. If anything, it’s counterproductive. At this point in history, it’s better to acknowledge out of the gate that we represent an entirely different kingdom with entirely different values and under an entirely different authority. Becoming a Christian in America means you’re not only going to have to drink a few cups of crazy milk; you’re going to have to buy the whole crazy cow.
This was Daniel’s approach in Babylon and Paul’s approach in Athens. Daniel started his apologetic with “But there is a God in heaven” (Dan. 2:28). The apostolic message to the men of Athens was not “Return to the God of your fathers and reembrace the morality of your upbringing.” It was, in essence, “Most of what you have believed up to this point is wrong. But I saw an altar out there that said, ‘To the Unknown God.’ Him I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23).
2. Biblical Problems
(1) Removing the Offense of the Cross Also Divests It of Power
While it’s true that Christian missionaries seek to remove obstacles to faith, such choices should never involve muting, denying, or equivocating on anything the Bible teaches. In the Great Commission, where Jesus commands us to make disciples of all people (including those with same-sex attractions), he also commands us to teach them to observe all he taught, certainly including the sanctity of marriage (Matt. 19:3–12).
Paul recognized our message would be to some “a stench of death,” but to overcome the message’s offensiveness, Paul didn’t counsel equivocation. He looked to the Holy Spirit to change the hearts of his hearers. Natural people, he said, can’t receive the things of God, no matter how attractive you make them (1 Cor. 2:14). Paul knew if he tried to make the gospel more palatable by the wisdom and eloquence of his age (which in our day might include celebrating individuality and downplaying the sinfulness of alternate sexualities), he may indeed gain a more eager audience, but the cross he preached would be divested of its power (1 Cor. 2:4).
At the center of preaching the cross is repentance. And repentance, properly understood, is the truly offensive thing. Jesus told a crowd of would-be followers that it means to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow him, with no conditions or caveats (Matt. 16:24). It means being willing to walk away from anything and everything in your life that competes with Jesus. Becket Cook, a gay man who was working in Hollywood’s entertainment industry when he became a Christian, explains (in a book commended to me by Andy Stanley!) how much Jesus’s demand of self-denial cut against the grain of his soul: “All my life I’d been told to be true to myself.” But in reading the Bible, he saw that [the self] is corrupted by sin, so why be true to that? The whole idea of [choosing your sexuality] is bound to the exaltation of self. It carries the implication of making yourself your own god. Putting yourself and your desires on a pedestal and worshiping them. Being true to yourself is nothing short of idolatry.
Repentance means denying the premise behind not only alternate sexualities but also the premise undergirding the entire spirit of our age: “I know who I am, and I know what’s best for me.” Rosaria Butterfield, who first heard the gospel as a practicing lesbian and professor of literature and women’s studies at Syracuse University in New York, argues the real focal point in repentance isn’t homosexuality or any other particular sin. It’s pride: “Proud people always feel that they can live independently from God and from other people. Proud people feel entitled to do what they want when they want to.” The call to repentance isn’t just offensive to gay people. It’s offensive to us all.
The call to repentance isn’t just offensive to gay people. It’s offensive to us all.
Perhaps the pressing question for this generation of Christians isn’t “Will we be faithful to the biblical teachings on homosexuality?” There’s a more fundamental question: “Are we actually preaching repentance?” Once you’ve accepted you must “deny yourself” and “take up a cross” to follow Jesus, the specific things you have to give up become less significant.
Some fear we’ll lose the next generation unless we make sexuality a nonissue. Maybe instead we should fear we’ve already lost the generation sitting in our churches who know nothing of denying self and taking up the cross. How terrible it would be to keep our churches full, only to have revealed on that final day that our congregation members are the ones to whom Jesus says, “I never knew you; depart from me” (Matt. 7:23).
Truly, broad is the way that leads to destruction, and narrow is the door that leads to life (Matt. 7:13–14). The door to life is as narrow as the exclusive claims of Christ, as difficult as self-denial, and as demanding as taking up a cross. Once you have accepted that you must “deny yourself” and “take up a cross” to follow him, what goes on the cross becomes less significant. Whether you have to crucify the desire for pornography, fame, or your unwillingness to be a missionary, following Jesus means a total surrender to all that Jesus has said or might lead you to. It requires a total death to self-will. In 1 Corinthians, Paul declared, “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, . . . nor men who practice homosexuality . . . will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9–10).
Homosexual sin isn’t the only sin Paul lists in that passage, but it’s one of them. This isn’t a “clobber passage.” It’s God’s gracious word of warning to a perishing world, and failing to make it clear would be the greatest unkindness we could inflict on our generation (Ezek. 33:8).
Certainly, these passages have been misused, like the Pharisees misused the law of Moses, to clobber people. But the fault lies not in the passage, only in the wielder of it. As Moses said, “They are not just idle words for you—they are your life” (Deut. 32:47, NIV).
Ambiguity on this issue isn’t kindness. Clarity is.
To return to Green’s distinction, the church needs both missionaries and defenders of orthodoxy. Each church must maintain both emphases. Richard Lovelace compared this to the red and white blood cell counts in our bodies. Too many white blood cells (leukocytosis) and we can die; too many red blood cells (polycythaemia) and we can die. Attempting to be an entirely “red blood cell” (evangelistic zeal) church is just as unhealthy as attempting to be an entirely “white blood cell” (doctrinal fidelity) church.
Perhaps surprisingly, doctrinal fidelity and evangelistic zeal are the best of friends. Doctrinal fidelity produces evangelistic zeal because fidelity to Scripture includes things like love for neighbor and desire for the salvation of the lost. If your church’s doctrinal fidelity is an enemy of your evangelistic zeal, you’re probably not as faithful to right doctrine as you think. Faithfulness to the whole Bible necessarily compels loving, charitable, relational, gracious, and urgent evangelism.
(3) Jesus Was Full of Grace and Truth
The light that couldn’t be overcome by the darkness was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:5, 14). John puts grace before truth, and the order isn’t accidental. As Stanley reminds us, Jesus led with grace—embracing others and drawing them close even as he told them the truth. He was so filled with grace that unbelievers flocked to be around him, and we should ask why they aren’t doing that with more of our churches.
Ambiguity on this issue isn’t kindness. Clarity is.
And Jesus was so filled with truth that sinners of all varieties cried out in unison for his crucifixion. He routinely said hard things that made would-be seekers turn away, leaving his disciples bewildered as to how he ever hoped to start any kind of movement (Matt. 19:25).
Jesus’s unstoppable power came from being filled with both grace and truth. Jesus was the only fully truthful man and the only fully gracious man. Those concepts were not enemies in his nature—warring against each other for “balance”—they were fully in agreement. Were Jesus not fully truthful, he wouldn’t have been gracious; were he not fully gracious, he wouldn’t have been truthful.
Churches today tend to gravitate toward one of the two. Fundamentalists like truth without grace. Liberals like grace without truth. (Though, in a gospel sense, grace requires the preaching of the law.) To be effective as evangelists, we have to be full of both—more truthful than the fundamentalist and more graceful than the liberal. Only then will we draw people to God like Jesus did, and only then will we send them out to the world to win it like he did.
We overcome the world, the flesh, and the Devil, John reminds us, not by our cleverly nuanced, trend-aware packaging of the gospel (though contextualization is important). We overcome these by loving not our lives unto death (Rev. 12:11). In other words, when our witness demonstrates there’s no authority more significant than Jesus, no possession more valuable than him, then we become unstoppable like him.
John the Baptist stood before Herod and confronted him on the sinfulness of sleeping with his brother’s wife, a sexual promiscuity readily accepted within royal society. In response, Herod chopped off John’s head. Matthew tells us this comment provoked the execution order. One can only imagine what some pastors might say to John today: “Oh, John, if you’d just downplayed this, or punted it, or just held off talking about it and been neither explicitly ‘affirming’ or ‘not affirming’ of open marriage, you wouldn’t only have kept your ministry, you’d have kept your head! You might even have eventually won over the heart of Herod and his court! Your insistence on preaching about sexual sin forfeited your audience with Herod.” Jesus’s verdict? Truly, John was the greatest prophet ever to live (Matt. 11:11).
Daniel, living in exile, was warned that praying to anyone but King Darius would result in execution (Dan. 6). And yet Daniel went home that very afternoon, opened his windows like he had so many times before, and prayed toward Jerusalem. Someone might have said, “Oh, Daniel, you can pray without opening your windows! Nothing in the Bible says you have to open your windows to pray.”
But Daniel knew what was at stake: to not open his windows would be perceived as a retreat from the Godship of God. It’d imply the culture’s authority was more binding than God’s. And so Daniel opened his windows and prayed as he had so many times before. God used that moment to show off his power. What will our retreat from talking about homosexuality say to our culture about the Godship of God? It’s true you can be a consistent Christian and not preach publicly about it. You can quietly obey in your room, keeping your windows shut. But that’s not where the lion-stopping power is.
What will our retreat from talking about homosexuality say to our culture about the Godship of God?
I don’t say we must preach about these things despite my desire to be a missionary to the LGBT+ community. I say it because I desire to be a missionary to them. I believe there’s a light shining in the darkness that mustn’t be overcome. So let me close with a story.
A number of years ago, a lesbian couple started to attend our church. After several months, one of the two scheduled an appointment with me. Through tears, she said, I need some advice—I prayed with you a few months ago at the end of a service to receive Christ, and now I don’t know what to do. When I started coming to this church, I was so excited about the God I was encountering each week that I invited my wife to come with me. She researched you and found out this church believes homosexuality is a sin, and she told me, ‘There’s no way I am going to that church. If you want God in our lives, fine. Let’s find a different church. A church where they accept us.’ So she found a liberal church in Raleigh and we started to go there.
“After attending there for a month,” she continued, “I told my wife that God was not in this church. He was, however, at The Summit. So, we had a choice. We could go to The Summit where God was and they didn’t accept ‘us,’ or go to this liberal church where they accepted us but God was not. ‘Do what you will, but I’m going to the church where God is.’” She asked for baptism and began the painful process of severing her marriage ties. Shortly thereafter, we baptized her.
Six more months went by, and I got a request from her former wife to meet. She told me,
After my wife was baptized, I finally worked up the courage to come and visit your church one weekend when she was out of town. When you introduced the subject matter for the morning, I couldn’t believe it. . . . I thought, ‘I knew it! This is all these bigots ever talk about. They are obsessed with us. I’ll just listen for 10 minutes and catalog all the hateful things he says so I can prove to my wife this is not the place for us.’
In five years, I’ve probably preached one message that was entirely and completely on the subject of homosexuality. That happened to be the weekend this woman chose to come.
She continued, “However, after 10 minutes, my column for ‘hateful things’ was blank, and I thought, #$%#! This is the most loving anti-gay message I’ve ever heard in my life. I’ve been attending or watching online every week since.” She broke down in tears and said, “I know this is all true and I want God in my life. What can I do?” A few weeks later, we had the privilege of seeing her profess faith in Christ in the waters of baptism. She said, “Thank you for not changing the message for me. It’s always been obvious, to both my partner and me, what the Bible says about this.” It’s time for us to throw open the windows, to turn our faces toward Jerusalem and lift our hands in faith to God. Don’t be afraid. The God who shuts the mouths of lions is ready to help.
Let’s Not Shrink Back
I haven’t intended this article to provide a detailed analysis or to render a final verdict on Andy Stanley’s ministry. We both have a judgment seat coming where that will happen. My intention is to encourage those of us who’ve been entrusted with God’s Word for this generation not to shrink back in unbelief but instead to press on in faith so we might be able to say to our generation what the apostle Paul said to his: We didn’t shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). We admonished everyone with tears, day and night (Acts 20:31). We fought the good fight, kept the faith, and finished the race (2 Tim. 4:7).