Watermark Community Church in Dallas (where my husband and I are members) was recently dragged into the media when a former member published a letter to the church on the one-year anniversary of his membership being revoked. After several years of fighting his unwanted same-sex attractions, the young man got weary of the battle and embraced a gay identity—and a boyfriend. The church pleaded with him to repent (turn 180 degrees) and submit to the Bible’s commands to sexual purity, but he would not. So the church sent him a letter which the young man made public.
Within hours, a firestorm erupted on social media, TV media, and print media.
Predictably, the church’s counter-cultural beliefs and stance were misrepresented out of people’s inability (or refusal) to understand biblical values and truths. It would be easy to come away with a very skewed perception of this situation, which is why it’s important to use discernment in reading or hearing anything about this controversial subject.
Recall the wisdom of Proverbs 18:17: “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.” It’s important to remember there’s another side of every story, and to hold judgment until one’s discernment kicks in.
It started when the former member’s Facebook post was picked up by the Dallas Morning News. His title was “Watermark Church Dismissed Me for Being Gay,” and the paper chose the title “Watermark Asks Homosexual Member to Leave Church.” It sure sounds like the church kicked him out, doesn’t it? But that’s not what happened. The church responded, “Watermark makes a distinction between attending our church [Sue’s note: which the former member was welcome to do] and being a formal member of our church. We don’t remove someone’s formal status as a member for struggling with sin—whether that sin is pride, materialism or sexual sin. Every member of Watermark needs God’s grace to stand firm in the midst of temptation and His forgiveness for the times we fall short.”
Jacqueline Floyd, a Dallas Morning News columnist, wrote a scathing column criticizing Watermark.
“A lot of people are upset that an institution that professes love for all its members would exile someone because of his sexual orientation.”
And they should be! But that’s not what happened. Pastor Todd Wagner’s response:
“Following the example of Jesus, Watermark loves and welcomes people of all backgrounds, economic statuses, ethnicities and sexual struggles. Also following his example, we encourage people to turn away from sin and to follow Jesus. We have many members and several staff who struggle with same-sex attraction or for whom same-sex sexual activity is a part of their past. We count it a privilege to labor with them in their desire to resist temptation, and we rejoice with them as they experience forgiveness and new life in Christ. Their stories are powerful and serve as beautiful testimonies to the transforming power of Jesus Christ.” [Emphasis his]
“He tried for years to conform to church requirements that he alter his essential nature, ‘repent’ his sexual orientation, undergo a form of ‘conversion therapy’ that research as well as mainstream psychology and counselors have denounced as harmful and pointless.”
This makes sense if you believe the culture’s sexual mythology that says being gay is one’s “essential nature,” as if a gay identity were the most important thing about an individual. (Consider how unbalanced it would be if we switched out the standard for how well someone can sing, declaring that one’s “essential nature” was one’s ability to carry a tune—or not. How awfully narrow and unnecessarily limiting that would be, as if every other aspect of one’s giftings and temperament, interests and abilities paled in comparison to their singing voice!)
The church does not require that anyone “alter their essential nature,” but it does align itself with scripture, acknowledging that we are all born sinful and broken, with a tendency to rebel and disobey against God:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.” (Romans 3:10b-12)
Our true “essential nature” is that we are both infinitely precious and valuable because we are made in God’s image, but also fallen and sinful. That “essential nature” can’t be altered by ourselves, but it can be transformed by God. That is the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I don’t know if anyone at Watermark mistakenly urged this brother to repent of his sexual orientation as if he had chosen to be same-sex attracted, but we certainly do exhort everyone to renounce and repent of all sexual sin (which means anything outside of marriage between one man and one woman). Concerning “conversion therapy,” Watermark doesn’t have that. What we do have is a call to discipleship, asking people to be “all in” with Jesus, obeying His word and pursuing intimacy with Christ. That intimacy usually produces heart change, which means transformation from the inside out, where therapy is an attempt to bring about change from the outside in.
“Trying to ‘change’ someone’s sexual orientation is about as useful as trying turn a turtle into a duck. When this witch-doctor alchemy predictably failed to work, the church blamed him—and revoked his membership. Not in person. They mailed him a letter.”
Lots of people believe that sexual orientation is fixed and unchangeable. That’s because if a lie is repeated loud enough and long enough, people will accept it as truth. Change is possible, and feelings (because that’s what we’re talking about here) are fluid. We see change happening in the first-century church; 1 Corinthians 6:11 says to former homosexuals, “And such were some of you.” I have seen change happen before my own eyes, for 18 years of involvement at Living Hope Ministries. And if that’s not enough, google “Lisa Diamond Sexual Fluidity” for some intriguing academic research that cites that change happens.
But then it sure sounds cold to mail someone a letter revoking his membership. And it would be—if it had happened like that. The letter was just the final formal communication, the period at the end of a series of anguished, face-to-face conversations.
See why it’s so important to remember that “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him”?
The letter from our own former member needs to be read with discernment as well:
“I spent years battling against my own homosexuality. When I wasn’t able to change, you turned your back on me.”
I’m sure there were some people mistakenly thinking and hoping that his same-sex attractions were a matter of choice that could be changed on demand. “Everstraights,” especially men, have a hard time imagining what it’s like to be drawn to the same sex, and can easily burden those who are, with unrealistic expectations.
Battling one’s homosexuality is incredibly difficult, and I can appreciate that many, many people pray hundreds of times, “God, I beg You, take this away!” That prayer is like mine growing up: “God, please! Heal me!” It’s like the apostle Paul’s prayer, recorded in 2 Corinthians 7b-9:
“I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
Paul pleaded with God to remove his thorn in the flesh, but God had something better. I pleaded with God to remove my thorn in the flesh, but He had something better. My same-sex attracted brother, our former member, pleaded with God to remove his thorn in the flesh, and He had something better for him as well, but my brother decided to embrace his flesh instead. He wrote,
“I am who God made me to be. I cannot change my sexual orientation, and nor would I want to. I now have internal peace and happiness unlike ever before.”
No, God did not make anyone same-sex attracted. Based on the thousands of men who have come through Living Hope, I would say God probably made him to be sensitive, artistic, creative, relational, and gifted. But not gay.
It’s not surprising that he now senses “internal peace and happiness unlike ever before.” He quit battling his flesh, the part of us that lives independently from God. The relief that comes from giving into temptation can feel like peace and happiness, for a while. It can feel like freedom. But it comes at a cost. There is no true intimacy with Jesus when we are indulging our flesh. There can be a faux intimacy, the echoes of having walked with Him in obedience and abiding trust. But true intimacy can only happen in the light:
“God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (1 John 1:5-7)
So I pray for my brother, and I pray for all of us to develop discernment as we process the war of worldviews about sexual ethics. It won’t be easy.
[Note: If you want a blessing and strong but grace-filled instruction about church discipline, please watch Todd Wagner’s response to this issue from the Watermark platform, “Why Good Leaders Have Always Written Letters to the Church They Love”: http://www.watermark.org/plano/message/4320]
This blog post originally appeared at blogs.bible.org/engage/sue_bohlin/when_a_church_tells_a_member_its_not_ok_to_be_gay on October 18, 2016.