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  • Writer's pictureElijah Blalock

Homosexuals and The Church, Part 2: Church Membership

This is the second part of a series on the church and the homosexual community. In my last post, I argued that the Bible's prohibitions against homosexual activity are not merely the result of its ancient cultural context, but grow out of its overall teachings on sex. For Christians, sex has God-given purposes that dictate what we believe is right and wrong, and homosexuality falls outside of those purposes. If you haven't already, please go back and read that post. This one won't make much sense unless you have.

What Is a Church Member?

Is the church a gathering of the saints or a hospital for sinners? Most of us would emphatically declare, "a hospital for sinners!" I've grown up Baptist my own life and I write this now as a Baptist minister for a Baptist church. Baptists have always been missional people who take seriously Christ's command to make disciples, so it is no wonder that we see ourselves as a hospital for sinners. But while we don't want to lose our evangelistic zeal, we need to qualify the "hospital for sinners" talk.

Part of the problem is that the word "church" can mean many different things. Sometimes, it means a building, sometimes it can mean a Sunday worship service, sometimes it means a local body of believers, and sometimes it means all of those who are in Christ around the world and through history. If we are thinking of our buildings and services, then of course those exist for sinners. We want lost people to join us on Sunday mornings so they can see God's goodness displayed in our worship! We also want believers (who are all still sinners!) to be built up in Christ.

However, when the Bible uses the word church, it isn't referring to a building or a service. It is referring either to a local body of believers (i.e. Rom. 16:1) or to the universal body of believers (i.e. Matt. 16:18). It is a translation of the word ekklesia, which means literally "those called out," or, in a smoother translation, an assembly or congregation. The word refers to people, specifically those who believe in Jesus and have been called out of the darkness and into the marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9).

Since New Testament times, church gatherings have not been exclusive to believers, except perhaps in times of intense persecution. Non-believers have always been welcomed to hear the gospel of Jesus (1 Cor. 14:23-25). However, they are not a part of the body. They would not have been allowed to teach or vote or hold office because they were not believers. That means that there is a distinction between who is in the room and who is a member of the church. Almost anyone who wants to come to worship can (I say "almost anyone" because we can surely think of some exceptions, such as someone who has threatened people in the church). However, to be a member is something else.

What local church membership should indicate is that the person in question belongs to the universal church. That is, they have a personal faith in Jesus and have been transformed by the Spirit. This should be evident in their lives. There are numerous examples in the New Testament of people being excluded from the church because their beliefs or lifestyle are in direct disobedience to God. Perhaps the most famous example is in 1 Corinthians 5, where one member had been in an illicit relationship with his stepmother. Paul strongly commanded the church to remove that person from their fellowship. We should not infer that this was a permanent and irrevocable ban. 2 Corinthians 2:5-8 indicates that restoration is possible after repentance, and possibly refers to the man in 1 Corinthians 5. However, the New Testament is clear that unrepentant sinners should be removed from church membership and perhaps from the gathering altogether. These commands are not limited to sexual sin. For example, Paul also said to have nothing to do with a divisive person (Titus 3:10). While we cannot set a standard of perfection for church membership, we should expect members to be grieved over their sin practice regular repentance. Church members will sin. However, they should not stubbornly persist in sin.

Let's apply these principles to two different scenarios regarding homosexuality. Suppose one person seeking membership at a church is in an active homosexual relationship. When confronted, this person does not repent. They see themselves as homosexual and do not intend to change. They are homosexual in orientation, behavior, and (most importantly) identity (see the first post for definitions). Should this person be given membership? The answer is no because they will not repent of sin. One might object and say, "but all of our members are sinners!" True! But this person isn't being excluded because they are a sinner, but because they refuse to repent. Imagine for a second that another person in the church had been caught lying repeatedly, and when confronted said, "well, I'm just a liar! I can't help it. God made me this way!" We would consider that not only sinful, but possibly pathological, and we would be right to remove that person from membership, not because they lied, but because they refused to repent.

However, let's imagine a different scenario. Another person feels attracted to the same sex. Perhaps they have even been in a same-sex relationship or had a sexual encounter. However, they feel convicted by the Spirit to change. Perhaps they fail again. Perhaps their attraction to the same sex never goes away. However, they consistently repent and seek God's forgiveness. We could say that this person is homosexual in orientation, has engaged in homosexual behavior but later repented, and rejects homosexual identity. Should this person be admitted to membership? The answer is yes because if that person has placed their faith in Jesus and is struggling against sin, it is our job to welcome them into God's family and to bear their burdens as we would for any other sinner. Some might object, "but this is different!" How so? Statistics tell us that an overwhelming number of church members had sex before marriage and that many are presently watching porn. Should these people be excluded from membership even if they repent? To be a member, would you expect them to repent perfectly once and for all and to never even be tempted again? Could you be a member under such a standard? There should be a standard, but be careful you aren't disqualified by your own standard (Matt. 7:1-2)!

We should not fool ourselves into thinking that we have met the biblical standard for sexuality by merely identifying as heterosexual. In an article well worth your time to read, Michael Hannon writes,

"as a general rule, identifying as a heterosexual person today amounts to declaring oneself a member of the 'normal group,' against which all deviant sexual desires and attractions and temptations are to be measured. Such hetero-identification thus ushers in a pathetically uncritical and... unmerited self-assurance, not to mention an inaccurate measure for evaluating temptation... we do have a model norm for the evaluation of sexual deviancy. But that model is not heterosexuality. It is Christ Jesus Himself."

Part of the reason that the church's witness is so weakened in this area is not that it upholds too high a standard, though there are certainly instances where it has been abusive and harsh towards homosexuals. The issue is that it holds too low a standard in every other area except this one. Granted, churches cannot be expected to hold members accountable for sins kept secret. But when premarital sex, pornography, and adultery are ignored, and lying, gossiping, maliciousness, idolatry, anger, and abuse are not confronted but rather normalized, we have no moral credibility to condemn anything, including homosexuality.

How should we respond then? There are two extremes to avoid. One says that since our churches have so often permitted every other sin while condemning this one, we are in no place to exclude those who identify as homosexual. Perhaps, this is done out of a sense of justice for the past abuses of the church towards the homosexual community, or perhaps it's just that people feel we should welcome these sinners since we tolerate everything else. However, the answer here is not to compromise whatever standards we have left, but rather to return to the standards that God gave us in the Bible, and I mean all of them, and hold our members to it. We should not begin to tolerate homosexuality because we have tolerated lying for example. Instead, we should confront both for what they are: sin—something that is offensive to God and destructive to the sinner and our community.

There is an opposite extreme to be avoided. Some would take church discipline to such an extreme that we would all be living in a never-ending witch hunt. These people impose impossible standards, essentially seeking to bring the kingdom through church discipline. We can't do that. Churches should practice church discipline, but they should do so with great patience and care. The idea is not to create heaven on earth in our churches by terrorizing sinners. Churches will contain sinners no matter what, and this harsh discipline will merely drive it underground where it isn't seen but remains just as destructive. The idea instead should always be for the benefit of the person caught in sin and for the witness of the gospel. We should always desire repentance and restoration for sinners, even if we have to exclude them for the sake of our collective witness. Sin should be confronted as it arises as privately as possible, and with great mercy and patience.

This is a complicated and messy process, and it will be difficult to achieve in a context shaped by cultural Christianity and easy-believism. However, we must hold one another to God's standards and pursue holiness together. No one person can or should police the church. Instead, we should be good enough friends to one another to gently confront sin when we see it. Sin is destructive, and it is not loving to ignore it. Nonetheless, we should confront others in a way that we would hope to be treated ourselves. We should expect those who join our churches to demonstrate a real faith in Jesus, demonstrated by a new way of life. We should also practice church discipline when Scripture demands that we must.

In these last two posts, I have tried to explain why Christians believe homosexual acts are wrong, and why churches should not accept practicing homosexuals into membership. While I hope that I provided some clarity to the teachings and the policy of the church, this likely won't help you talk to your homosexual neighbor or help someone struggling with same-sex attraction. In part 3, we will address these people with the gospel.

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