Building Relationships That Matter: A Framework for Entering the Hot Zone
by Eric, author of Two World Collision
Jesus Christ is coming back for His Bride, not a harem. Yet, the Church continues in its lack of unity, its pride and division over issues and matters of life and politics while being distracted from the things that really matter - the love that God actually has for all people, and the love we ought to be living out among our neighbors. The polarizing issue of homosexuality has the potential to be the leading cause of division within the Church in the 21st century. It is an issue that is both personal and relevant to those living through it, persecuted because of it, or have loved ones struggling with it.
The Church's effectiveness in this world is diminished by its constant attacks and arguments about this issue within denominations, local churches, and families. There are whole denominations that are splitting over the issue. Churches are splitting over the issue. Family members are being disowned. Pastors are refusing to fellowship with other pastors of opposing views. Christians are leaving their local churches out of frustration, anger, and hurt without any intent to fellowship elsewhere. The divisions communicate to the world that the Church doesn't offer the peace that it claims it has from its Savior. With public infighting and bickering, the Church simply does not know how to disagree with itself. What can the Church offer a person who is attracted to the same gender? What kind of love can it give to a couple of the same gender who say they love each other but also desire Christ? What sort of message would it give to an individual who feels more comfortable living life as another gender? What if these people were our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, friends and loved ones, neighbors across the street or even fellow church-goers?
The disagreements regarding this issue fall within a wide spectrum. Proponents of same gender relationships, referred to as Side A, believe that God blesses these kinds of relationships in the context of love and commitment. They believe that the context of homosexuality as mentioned in Scripture does not describe the same context of modern day monogamous and loving gay and lesbian couples. There are those, referred to as Side B, who believe that a person can embrace the reality of being attracted to the same gender but should remain celibate because acting upon such attractions are considered sinful. Both Side A and Side B refer to themselves as "gay Christians" or "Christ-centered gay people." There are also those, referred to as Side X (or the Ex-Gay view), who believe that all forms of homosexuality, both in thought and action regardless of context, is a sin and that an individual who is attracted to the same gender needs to be (and can be) transformed by Christ through prayer, reorientation, and therapy to be heterosexual. Disagreements amidst Side A, Side B, and Side X lead to hostility and animosity towards the Church by homosexuals who have either not yet embraced Christ or once had a churched background but left it because of rejection and hurt from its people.
It is a difficult debate that is heated with intense emotions. To many people in the Church, it is easier not to talk about the issue, perhaps because a discussion will inevitably lead to conflict. To others, the issue is non-relevant and so they are detached or apathetic. Failure to talk about the issue will result in a continued ineffectiveness in expressing the love of Christ in our communities where it is extremely relevant. This "hot zone" of discussion can be referred to as the place where conversation about homosexuality and faith and God are no longer the "unspeakable topic." The Church needs to enter this "hot zone." Through relationships, we can approach one another with love to dialogue about things that we don't understand or things that we don't agree with.
The Hot Zone
Etiquette tells us that we should never talk about sex, politics, and religion. However, these are the things that affect our lives. These are the things that shape our lifestyles and paradigms. Most people don't like to be challenged - to be told that they are wrong. Perhaps we should never talk about sex, politics, and religion because these are things that no one will ever find complete agreement in. Yet, there are benefits to entering this "hot zone" of talking about the things no one wants to talk about. Primarily, we begin to understand each other more. These taboo topics of discussion are the things that reveal our beliefs, ethics, and morals. By understanding one another, we can begin to sensitively relate with one another in ways that are meaningful, helpful, and healthy. Secondly, when we challenge our own paradigms and belief systems, we are actually shaping them. Questioning one's belief about something doesn't weaken it. It simply reveals it. By engaging with one another in this "hot zone", not in battle but rather in dialogue, we have the opportunity to understand each other and ourselves.
The Tough Questions
We can no longer ignore the tough questions of the "hot zone". Is a person really gay? Can he or she be changed? Should he or she be changed? Were they born gay? Is it a choice? Did God create them to be gay or was it a mistake? Can gay people be Christian? Do gay people need to circumcise their sexuality if they are Christian? What makes us Christian? Does a gay Christian forfeit salvation for continuing to love another person of the same gender? Is the message given to gay people the same message we should give to transgendered people? Should certain lifestyle restrictions be imposed on gay Christians that don't apply to straight Christians? What is the word "homosexuality" referring to when referenced (or inferred) in Scripture? What is the sin - the context of lust/idolatry or the reference to same gender sexual interaction? Is there a distinction between a loving context and a lustful context in both straight and gay relationships? To what degree does our own cultural paradigm taint our interpretation of Scripture? Do straight people bring an assumption regarding gay people when reading Scripture? Do gay people bring an assumption regarding themselves when reading Scripture? How should the Church respond, both as individuals and as a collective Body, to the injustices committed against homosexuals in our community? Are we called to change our character or our sexuality? Is Jesus concerned about who we love or how we love or both? Is there anyone who is not our neighbor? Does Jesus accept gay people who accept Him? How do we accept those whom God accepts? Are we using the same definitions when we use the words "homosexual", "gay", "sin", "love", and "accept"? Do any of these questions determine salvation doctrine?
The People We Love
We can no longer ignore each other. It's easy to claim that this issue is non-relevant when we don't personally know someone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. A person's thoughts and feelings and inclinations regarding sex and gender cannot simply be seen from the surface. This makes it easier to hide such an orientation from others out of fear of rejection. However, the reality is that it isn't easy to be hidden. There is much suffering happening in the "closets" of people's hearts. If a physical mark denoted every person who was oriented differently, we would be surprised to discover how many more people in our lives are living with the burden of being hidden.
Those hidden in secrecy suffer the effects of silence. A person, shamed in the darkness by self or society, experiences profound depression. It is common to consider suicide as a viable option. He or she feels isolated and disconnected, misunderstood, undesirable, unwanted, and unacceptable. This person can feel abandoned by loved ones - similar to the feelings of children of adoption. Even a person who has others who know about the "secret" can suffer when it remains a taboo topic of discussion. He or she feels invalidated and unimportant as if this significant issue in his or her life is still irrelevant to those whose opinions matter. These are people who are still thirsting to be known. They find it difficult to embrace the grace of Christ that is freely available to them. A sense of perfectionism in some of these people is evident because of their constant self-perception of being an imperfect creation. These are people who feel sad, alone, confused, and frustrated.
There are also those that are not hidden. These are people that we know who are openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. They live their lives free of society's opinions of them and they enter into committed and monogamous relationships. They care for one another, and indeed, they love each other. They are deeply offended by the suggestion from others that what they call "love" isn't really love. They avoid family members and former friends, keeping them at a distance because they have grown weary of rejection and hurtful debates.
These are our children, parents, siblings, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. These are our fellow Christians whom we have witnessed worshipping the same Lord Jesus honestly. If we discover that a loved one is gay, what then? A choice must now be made. This is a relevant issue.
Unity and Reconciliation
Our unity and effectiveness as the Church in this world is at stake. We are perceived as hypocrites by those who witness our animosity towards each other. God desires us to be unified. Paul says in Ephesians 4:3 that we should "make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace." Our divisions make us hostile towards one another. We must find a way to reconcile with each other so that we can demonstrate the reconciliation that we have with God through Christ. We are, after all, Christ's ambassadors given the ministry of reconciliation. Paul also says in 2Corinthians 5:19 "that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And He has committed to us the message of reconciliation." How much more ought we to be reconciled to each other?
Everyone has a view (or is at least trying to determine what they believe) about homosexuality and faith and how these are to be lived out. Those who have taken sides, Sides A, B, X, or even those in between, can still find a way to accept one another as siblings-in-Christ while still maintaining their views. If we can determine that salvation comes by grace alone through faith in Christ, then the matter of sexuality is a secondary issue - a disputable matter.
Much like the early Christians who were in dispute regarding foods to be eaten or sacred days to acknowledge, today we can accept one another as brothers and sisters in Christ even though we are in dispute about whether or not same gender relationships are acceptable or sinful. Paul addresses this in Romans 14:
"Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand." (Romans 14:1-4)
"One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God." (Romans 14:5-6)
"So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore, let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way. As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean." (Romans 14:12-14)
"Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food . . . . So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin." (Romans 14:19-20, 22-23)
In the "hot zone" of discussion, we may disagree but we should not condemn. As we learn about each other, we should be sensitive to what each other's views are. Someone who is Side A should not tempt another who is celibate. Someone who is Side B should not condemn another who is in a loving relationship. Someone who is Side X should not strive to be the agent of transformation to those who experience attraction towards the same gender. Each of us decides what we believe about these things through prayer and discernment. However, it should be noted that we are each seeking the Lord. Jesus Christ is our common Rock who enables each of us to stand firmly before God.
There is a reality in this "hot zone" that we must face. Within this "hot zone" there are genuine Christ-centered believers. The early Church, at first, couldn't fathom the concept of salvation coming to the Gentiles. They were considered to be unclean. However, as recorded in Acts 10, Peter was led by the Spirit to enter the home of Cornelius (a Gentile), witness what God was already doing among them, proclaim the Good News of Jesus to them, and see the Holy Spirit fill them. Peter and the other "circumcised believers" had a choice to either accept what God was doing among the "unclean" or reject what they saw with their own eyes. "Then Peter said, 'Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have' " (Acts 10:46-47). When Peter returned to report to the other apostles in Acts 11, he acknowledged the salvation that had come to the Gentiles.
Similarly, there are Christ-centered gay people who have accepted Jesus into their hearts, received forgiveness by grace, and worship the Lord with thanksgiving. These people strive to love their neighbors better. They are concerned about the Lord's will in their lives. They honor the inspired Word of God. When we take the time to build relationship with these people, we will soon discover that they are no longer "those" people but rather one of "us." When we see with our own eyes the way that they love Jesus, we cannot deny what God has chosen to do among them.
In this "hot zone," our relationship with God should be our model for how we ought to approach each other. As we consider establishing a framework for how to enter this "hot zone" with people of differing opinions, we must look to see how God interacts with us so that we may discern a proper context for coming together in dialogue.
Everything that God does and says to us is motivated by His love for us. When He chose to become flesh and dwell among us, serve as a sacrifice for us, then to redeem us, it was all motivated by love not condemnation. He said, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Jesus, indeed, demonstrated His genuine love for us by dying on the cross on our behalf. He also says, "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit - fruit that will last...This is my command: Love each other" (John 15:16-17).
As we discuss disputable matters in the "hot zone", we must be motivated by our love for one another. In sincerity, we cannot make our point at the expense of our loved one's heart. Being right isn't worth not being in relationship. We must remember that the person with whom we disagree with is also the person with whom we should be willing to die for. This reality will frame the context of our discussion in the "hot zone".
God's heart breaks for us when we are hurting, grieving, or persecuted. He is the first to rush towards us and He is the first to give aid. "When He saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Matthew 9:36). Even when He Himself was distressed after hearing about John the Baptist being killed and wanted to be alone, Jesus saw the crowds following Him and "had compassion on them and healed their sick" (Matthew 14:14). As He told the parable of the Lost or Prodigal Son who went away, squandered everything, hit rock bottom, and returned home, He says that the "father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him" (Luke 15:20).
Jesus didn't show mere pity for those He looked down upon. He had genuine compassion for us. As we discuss the realities of being gay in today's society and the unjust persecution of even those within the Church, we should be filled with the same compassion that Jesus is giving them. We should be willing to hear the stories of how gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals have been mistreated and we should be the first to demand justice rather than being the first to throw a stone. Regardless of whether or not we agree with each other, we can agree that all people are deserving of dignity and respect.
Jesus was the ultimate example of humility and servant hood. He hears our prayers and gives us what we need. He interacts with us as His friends and children - approachable. Being a holy King, He sees fit to touch our imperfect lives. He washed our feet, was beaten on our behalf, and brought us bread and water that will never perish. He is our "Immanuel" - our "God with us" (Matthew 1:23). Paul says in Philippians 2:3-8:
"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross!"
As we dialogue in the "hot zone", we ought to remember that we are not forcing our opinion upon another person. Rather, we are serving the other person. We should engage in our conversations as if we highly esteem each other. We should be approachable - safe enough to get close to. Every opinion is valued and worth being heard and considered. We should remember that none of us has perfect understanding of anything. We can learn and grow from each other. There is always the very real possibility that we may be wrong. Let's commit to remaining humble enough to admit it.
Jesus embodied true sacrifice. He displayed it not only with his life but also in his relationships with people. Despite his weariness, He continued to heal the sick. He gave of Himself when ever people were in need. He realized that they were the reason He came. Jesus' sacrifice for our own lives is a model for the way that we should live sacrificially towards one another. In the "hot zone", there will be times when we will feel defensive. We can sacrifice our pride and our need to explain ourselves when the other person is expressing hurt and sadness. We can sacrifice our compulsion to correct the other person with our perceived "truth" if it means we will instead share in the other person's grief. Making sacrifices for the sake of the relationship is not the same thing as compromising our beliefs. It is simply an expression of the value we have for one another.
God has forgiven each and every one of our sins. Paul says in Romans 3:9-11, "What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written: 'There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.'" Further, he says, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus" (Romans 3:23-24). Additionally, he says, "But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).
The Lord initiated the process of forgiveness for us even before we were ready to approach Him to ask for it. We will, more than likely, offend each other in the "hot zone." We should be quick to forgive and offer the benefit of the doubt for each other so that our relationship can be preserved. When Peter asked Jesus how many times we ought to forgive our brother when he sins against us, "Jesus answered, 'I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times'" (Matthew 18:21-22). Nehemiah 9:17 describes our Father to be "a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love." How much more should we be towards one another?
Approaching one another in the "hot zone" of disagreement can be difficult, hurtful, and uncomfortable. However, our relationship with God and the way He interacts with us should be our model for coming together to discuss relevant and important issues. We should remember to embrace love, compassion, humility, sacrifice, and forgiveness in our hearts so that these things can frame our dialogue in the "hot zone."
The Church needs to enter that place where conversation about homosexuality and faith and God are no longer the "unspeakable topic." We need to end the unbearable silence and dialogue about the things that we disagree about so that we can begin to understand one another peacefully and demonstrate a unity in the Body of Christ. We need to learn how to disagree with each other. This framework for our conversation must be shaped and established through our relationships with one another. It is through relationships that we gain the trust that serves as the key to each other's beliefs, paradigms, and lives.
Find Common Ground
In order to establish a stage for peaceful conversation, we must first affirm the things that we all agree upon. Our common ground rests with our core salvation doctrine. These are the things that we all believe. These are the things that unite us in Spirit:
- There is only one true God expressed in three distinct persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
- The Bible, as Scripture, is the inspired Word of God.
- The Deity of Jesus Christ, our Savior, is the foundation through whom we have the forgiveness of our sins.
- Salvation comes by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, who shed His blood as a sacrifice to atone for our sins.
- As those who believe and have received Jesus, we are all adopted into the Family of God.
There may very well be other things that we can find agreement upon as well. The important distinction that we ought to make is that we are coming together on equal footing - equally forgiven, and equally heirs to the same inheritance of the promises of God. If we can find our common ground in those things that save us, then perhaps we can proceed to discuss those things that shape us.
Focus On Relationship
We cannot easily condemn a person about an issue when it's personal. It's easy to maintain a black or white stance on the issue when we don't actually know the person affected by our condemnation. However, it's different when now someone is suggesting that your mother or son is going to "hell." The issue quickly enters the gray areas when it involves someone we know and care about. The purpose of our entry into the "hot zone" is to nurture relationships not to champion a cause. We must keep an honest desire to grow in our understanding of God and of each other while engaging in these difficult conversations. It is our relationships with each other that will assist us in navigating these controversial waters.
Reject Stereotypes and Assumptions
There are many stereotypes and assumptions that we must set aside in order to have a productive dialogue. These things taint the way we receive a person's statements. Common stereotypes and assumptions may include notions like: gay men are attracted to all men, homosexuals are child molesters, gay sex is all about lust, lesbians hate men, gay Christians are simply compromising the Word of God by choosing what they want to believe, all straight men are homophobic, all Christians are judgmental and condemning, gay and lesbian couples are just worshipping each other instead of Christ, "they" are just confused, their love for one another is only co-dependence, and "they" will never understand. These are all generalizations not based on truth. Every individual is an independent person worth getting to know.
Reject Personal Baggage
In order for our relationships to grow through our conversations, we must set aside our hurts, brokenness, and insecurities from the past. Many of us have been wounded by individuals and we have a tendency to project those emotions on to people in the present who resemble those who hurt us. This can result in unwarranted hostility towards the other person in the "hot zone." We can sometimes have difficulty trusting people out of fear for abuse. Trust can happen gradually as we invest the time to nurture relationships but we must reject the idea that we will never trust again. We should also be sensitive to the reality that other people do have "baggage." It's also not fair to expect a person to "get over it" so easily. We must take the time to understand one another.
Advocate For One Another
The fruit of our nurtured relationships in the "hot zone" can be seen in our expanding understanding and compassion for one another. We ought to be a witness to what we have learned through this process so that we can help break down the stereotypes and assumptions of the people we know that are not in the "hot zone." We should speak peaceably about one another even when we are not together. A Christian straight person should not tolerate the gay jokes. A Christian gay person should not tolerate the church-bashing. All of us should press for justice towards those who are being mistreated.
Stay Above The Fray
Our motives should be beyond politics or proselytizing. We need to nurture relationships absent of any external agenda. We are building relationships of significance and so we can't see each other as people to be used for a grander purpose. There is no greater purpose in our relationships than to genuinely love each other as ourselves. When we set a goal to "save" this person, we diminish the relationship. Additionally, we cannot avoid one another for the sake of public reputation or politics. We must be genuine in our relationships both in and out of the "hot zone."
Family Not Enemies
We have got to remember that we are all a part of the Family of God. Whether we are Side A, Side B, or Side X, we are all believers striving to figure out how to live out our faith in the context of sexuality. We need to continue to refer back to our common ground so that we can see each other in the proper context. We are not enemies. Through Christ, we have been reconciled to God and so we ought to be reconciled to each other. We should no longer refer to each other as "one of them" but rather as "one of us." We are all loved ones worth knowing, not lost ones worth changing.
One of the most validating experiences for a relationship is to feel heard. We need to listen to each other's stories. Our relationships grow as we get to know more about each other. This requires a genuine interest in hearing about each other's lives. In the "hot zone", we each want to make our point but it is important that we respect each other enough to listen to the other person's point of view.
Establishing a framework for entering the "hot zone" with loved ones to discuss things we don't completely agree about rests upon our ability to nurture relationships with each other. We must begin with identifying a common ground in which we can find consensus - that we are all Christians. We should focus on nurturing relationships rather than championing a cause. We ought to reject stereotypes, assumptions, and personal baggage so that we can begin to understand each other on an individual and personal level. We must advocate for one another in a way that expresses our intolerance for injustice. We should stay above the fray of politics and proselytizing and maintain sincere relationships absent of any agenda. We have to remember that despite our perspective regarding this issue, we are still on the same side of the Family of God. Our mutual respect for one another is demonstrated in the way we listen to each other.
The issue of homosexuality is dividing the Church. Our unity and effectiveness in this world is at stake. There are people hurting both inside and outside of the Church and the wounded are choosing to leave. The reality that we must stop ignoring is that God is working among the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered community. We are called to reconcile with each other in love, compassion, humility, sacrifice, and forgiveness. Our relationships with each other establish the framework for our dialogue, understanding of each other, and reconciliation. By building relationships that matter, we can mutually shape each other's beliefs, paradigms, and lifestyles.