Sexual Identity: Community and Church Issues, Loving Our Gay Neighbors Through Church Membership
I mean it when I say that I would love my church to be filled Sunday after Sunday with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (or questioning) individuals. And I mean it when I say that I would love to have those very same individuals over for lunch after church, and then invite them back for evening service, and finally set up a time to meet them for lunch during the week. I pray for this and in the context of where our church is located it very well could happen.
Now to be sure, gay men and lesbian women visiting on Sunday’s does not happen regularly (I have a hunch that it has something to do with the word “Baptist” in the name of our church). But when it does happen, I am always thankful, and generally pleased with the engaging conversations that ensue.
My desire, of course, is that the Gospel would do its work. That God in His sovereign grace would change the lives, not only of my LGBTQ friends that enter through our church doors, but change the lives of every soul that walks in to hear the living word of God preached, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
And it’s at that point, the point where new life has been created and my visiting gay friend has now become my brother, where the conversation changes. I am no longer just happy that he’s visited, now my focus has changed towards what it means to become a member of the church. Because up until that point there is a real distinction between his being there with the church physically and his being there spiritually.
Membership within the local church, inaugurated through baptism and sustained through the partaking of communion, signifies the very real spiritual unity of all those who are one in Christ, members of His body, the church in that location.
Here then is the balance between a liberal and widely inclusive Gospel with that of an exacting and exclusive Gospel. Make no mistake it is the same Gospel. The church reflects and proclaims the Gospel to all people, beckoning and inviting any and all to come, repent, and believe in Jesus Christ. No matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done or how you live or to whom you’re attracted, Jesus Christ is offered to you. And the church of Christ, as made up of local churches worldwide, should likewise reflect and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ with an all-inclusive openness. Yes, all are welcome.
But the beauty of the Gospel, the good news found in Jesus Christ, is that he not only forgives sins but also changes sinners. Herein lays the exclusivity. As born again believers are transferred from death into life, the church confirms this truth through Baptism - believers who have died to sin (under the water they go) have also been raised to new life in Christ (back out of the water they come)! This signifies their first real steps into the church. They now have seats at the table. No, really. As members and as believers they can now partake of the Lord’s Supper, a means of grace, which strengthens and sustains their now new communion with other believers in the church and with the head of the church, Jesus Christ himself.
This last part is exclusive. Only those who have repented and believed in Jesus are members of Jesus. Thus, when my gay friend visits and attends church - amen! But when my gay friend desires to join the church the conversation is different. If he has not repented of his sexual sin and instead continues to believe that he can in good conscience be in a sexual relationship with another man, then the church as a loving response cannot affirm his submission unto Christ and thus cannot affirm him as a member.
I want to restate that this is truly a loving response. Unrepentant sin has eternal consequences and so to affirm someone who is living in open and unrepentant sin as a member, to allow them to take the elements of the Lord’s Supper, is to confer upon them a false assurance of their salvation. It is to say to them, “you’re right with God” when in fact they are not right with God. Thus, to have that conversation at the front-end, that membership is predicated upon the evidence of true repentance and saving faith, is the height of gospel love. Indeed, love is bold and at many times uncomfortably awkward.
Indeed, this is why Paul reminds us that “we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:15-17).
My prayer is that local churches around the world would be bold in our open inclusive preaching of the gospel, welcoming any and all to behold and believe in Christ. But I also pray that in love for others and in love for the Gospel we would be bold in our exclusivity, and taking seriously the parameters of church membership and applying rightly the sacraments of the church to the church. In these two “extremes” we see most clearly the fullness of love in the gospel.
Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.