It should be obvious to us that the Bible’s teaching on gender and sexuality provokes hesitancy, questions, and sometimes violent opposition. We’ve experienced such responses from others and perhaps respond in these ways ourselves. For some, one of the most difficult implications of orthodox sexual ethics is that it involves a severe, life-altering call to repentance and faithfulness to Christ for those whose inclinations do not match the moral teaching of the Bible. Those who are single are called to withstand immense cultural pressure to marry and to avoid indulging in ample opportunities to gratify sexual desires outside of marriage. Those who experience same-sex attraction are called to celibacy or marriage to the opposite sex. Those who experience gender dysphoria are called to express their biological sex and not manifest outwardly their inward inclinations.
In our day, when most of our desires can be satisfied with a purchase or a click, these callings seem like burdensome, even insurmountable expectations. Their impossibility, for some, is so complete that it warrants rethinking the orthodox Christian position on sexuality and gender. With so much at stake, it is worth asking: why do these callings seem so impossible to us?
Well, for one, they are impossible for those left to their own devices. Trying to minimize their difficulty is not only unhelpful but also false to reality. Remaining single, or celibate, or not expressing the gender one feels oneself to be are impossible tasks. Our culture, with its emphasis on “affirmation,” its effort to denigrate the virtue of chastity, and its pornographic imagination, is not friendly to those who wish to live upright lives.
Moreover, these calls are impossible because all forms of repentance are impossible with man. The parable of the rich young ruler makes this clear. If it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, then “who can be saved?” (Luke 18:26). How can one accomplish something that is less possible, so to speak, than something already impossible? While we might recoil at the thought that our eternal salvation depends on a task that is impossible to accomplish on our own, the impossibility of the rich man’s repentance does not give Jesus pause. Why? Because “what is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).
The Scriptures contain many similar teachings on God’s almighty power in relation to man’s impotence. Paul, for instance, writes that “God…gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom 4:17). The greatest example of God’s power to do the impossible is the resurrection of his Son, which he accomplished by “the working of his great might” (Eph 1:19). Remarkably, a similar miracle occurs each time God “grant[s] repentance” to a sinner in need of mercy (2 Tim 2:25).
The callings placed on those with morally impermissible sexual desires should cause all Christians to reflect on the nature of repentance and faithful living. This issue necessarily touches all of us. “Repentance from dead works and faith towards God” (Heb 6:1) or “[turning] to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess 1:9) is, simply put, impossible for the sinner, regardless of the kinds of sin he/she commits. But with God “all things are possible” (Matt 19:26). No matter what species of sin characterized you, Christian, your repentance from sin and faith in Christ was impossible apart from the grace of God. For this reason – this radically equalizing reason – no call to holy living should cause us to revise the moral teaching of Scripture.
There is another reason why the call to repentance and faithful living is thought to place an undue burden on some. Far too often, those who issue such a call imply that fidelity to Christ is a private, solitary affair. But we should not assume that God calls us to repentance and then leaves us to our own resources to cleave to Christ through all of life’s hardships. On the contrary, God keeps us in Christ using many different means. Two of the most prevalent and yet least considered in the conversation on sexual chastity are Christian fellowship in the local church and the Lord’s Supper.
According to Scripture, the Christian life is not meant to be lived in isolation. Christians need each other to run the race of the Christian life. But before I address the importance of fellowship for our perseverance in Christ, I need to debunk the notion that our faith is only concerned with a decision in the past by which our tickets to heaven were punched. The culmination of our lives in Christ, Paul tells us, is that we will be presented “holy and blameless and above reproach before [Christ]” on the last day. But he adds one condition that we do well to remember: “if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard” (Col 1:22-23). The Christian faith is about perseverance to the end, not just an exciting beginning. This logic is baked into our Savior’s very life! If anything qualifies as an exciting beginning, God becoming flesh certainly must. Yet Jesus had to be faithful to the end, suffering in his body, dying on the cross, being raised from the dead, and ascending into heaven, in order to purchase our redemption and send forth the Spirit. Our Lord was faithful to the end. Why should we assume that fidelity is not required of us?
While fidelity, like repentance, is impossible with man, it is possible with God, who keeps us in Christ through the fellowship of believers in the local church. This is nowhere clearer expressed than in Hebrews 10:23-25: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” God uses the regular gathering of the local church – specifically the encouraging conversations taking place and friendships forming through regular fellowship and worship – to encourage weary believers, to grow us up in love, and to cause us to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering.” Fellowship in and with the local church is a gift from God, meant for our growth in Christ and our “[bearing] fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt 3:18).
This general teaching must be applied to us and to the particular issue before us in this article. These verses raise all-important questions for us:
- Is our fellowship so encouraging that those who are same-sex attracted will not lose heart as they endeavor to be chaste?
- Is our fellowship so unhurried and attentive that we can bear the burdens of those who experience gender dysphoria?
- Is our fellowship so gentle and committed to holiness that we can help those who are single obey Christ and serve the purposes of his kingdom?
- And, a question that must be asked concurrently with all of these: Do we embody the kind of patient, kind openness that welcomes the confession and disclosure of real struggles such as same-sex attraction and dysphoria?
So, we have seen that repentance from sin requires the sustenance of godly friendships in the local church. But, in conclusion, we must not forget another way that God sustains us. He keeps us in repentance and faith through a gift accommodated to weak, frail, embodied creatures such as ourselves: the Lord’s Supper. In the Supper, Jesus Christ comes to us in the Holy Spirit to nourish and sustain our faith. This has massive relevance for all Christians, but should especially encourage those who struggle with unwanted sexual attraction and questions of gender identity. To all those among us who experience gender dysphoria, who are single but longing for marriage, who are same-sex attracted, or who experience any other form of bodily dissatisfaction, recall that the Supper of our Lord is a foretaste of the wedding supper of the Lamb and the consummation of our marriage to him. Do not approach the Table as if doing so establishes your own righteousness, as if you are doing something for God. Instead, receive God’s grace at the Table. Know that his promises are confirmed and sealed to you as you partake. As surely as you taste the bread and the cup, your Lord and Husband will keep you for the Day on which you’ll be presented holy, blameless, and whole before him.