by Layton Friesen
On November 26 and 27, 2020, the EMC Ministerial gathered to talk about sex. The irony was not lost on us that a discussion about our bodies was held entirely on Zoom. But though this was not what we first planned, the format allowed people across the world to join in on an equal standing. It was a rich and thought-provoking time together.
We used the reality of the same-sex attracted people in our midst to help us understand the tension we all live with between the vision held out to us by God’s law and the messy, fractured reality we offer back to God as our obedience. What is the biblical anchor for understanding God’s vision of how men and women are to desire each other and enter into covenant with each other in a fallen world? What kind of theology, practices and support need to be in place for a church to truly empower someone with a same-sex attraction to live a meaningful, connected, even joyful celibate life?
A particularly haunting challenge that came up several times was this: A church with an infectious, vibrant way of welcoming singles into its discipleship and ministry truly offers a redemptive place for same-sex attracted people to be faithful in their Christian walk. We were also challenged to think about how a failure to address divorce, cohabitation and extra-marital sex would seriously compromise the church’s witness on other matters such as same-sex attraction or transgender issues. We were also encouraged by the church’s witness through organizations like Journey Canada and the House of Hesed in Winnipeg who provide crucial support to individuals and families when most needed.
Three of the planning committee members have offered short summaries of the different sections of this conference.
Barry Plett says, “The speakers on the first evening, Thursday night, were creative, concise and forceful in their quick dive through scripture. We began with a sweeping Biblical overview of God’s design for human sexuality. We looked at common errors of interpretation that can easily be made in defence of our viewpoints. We learned afresh how Jesus, the perfect model of grace and truth, interacted with the broad scope of broken humanity. Jesus began by extending lavish love to those others discarded, and then invited them to repent of their sin. We looked at Romans 1 and saw the tendency for Jews and Gentile alike to exchange their vertical relationship with God for idols. This is similar, Paul says, to how some people exchanged their natural horizontal human relationships for ways of loving that are unnatural. We also took a fresh and provocative look at the way our human and natural desires for romance and intimacy need not be squelched but should be seen as clues or trailers that prepare us for a more grand and eternal romance between us and God. The content and delivery was thought provoking and inspiring, calling each of us to surrender our own sexual brokenness in seeking to pastor our people who suffer from the same condition.”
Jennifer Kornelsen said, “On Friday we were moved by a number of personal, vulnerable life-stories. John Neufeld spoke about his experience of leading in a congregation where people of different sexual orientations and identities have found a home, though they teach clearly the traditional view of marriage. John urged church leaders to prepare themselves for complex scenarios so that they can respond well when put on the hot seat.
“We had several storytellers (referred to anonymously here) relate their experiences of growing up either as people with same-sex attraction or with family members who were same-sex attracted. One storyteller shared about what it was like to be open with his church about his sexuality and to choose a celibate life. He challenged the church to be a place where single people are richly knit into community. Another shared how being gay made him feel unacceptable in the church and how he left his faith to pursue a gay lifestyle. God met him in a dramatic way causing him to leave his partner and return to faith. He later experienced attraction to a woman whom he married. He encouraged the church to embrace a theology of suffering together as a body.
“A single woman from one of our churches told how she has often experienced exclusion as a single person in the church, but also how the church has been a place of rich friendship for her. There is a lot more the church could do to affirm singleness and celibacy and to integrate single people into the life of the church family.”
Dallas Kornelsen relates, “Conferences are often brief and intense periods during which large amounts of information are dispensed with little opportunity for participants to process the flood of material. The Desire conference attempted to remedy this by offering several options for attendees to process their experience.
Breakout Groups: Smaller breakout groups, of up to five people, after many of the main sessions allowed for people to discuss session content. Many of the groups reported vibrant and beneficial interactions.
Designated Listeners: Four designated listeners were tasked with providing individual reports on general themes they had heard throughout the conference. The listeners did a brilliant job of distilling and personalizing an overwhelming amount of information.
Time of Prayer: A time of responsive prayer was led by Jennifer Kornelsen which included portions of lament, confession, thanksgiving and celebration. Many people also joined in on the spontaneous open-mic-style prayer time following.
Group Response: Finally, the conference ended with a time where individuals could share on any aspects of their conference experience with the entire group. Several people mentioned provocative ideas shared by John Neufeld. One of the ideas concerned baptism of those who are same-sex attracted, and another was Neufeld’s challenge for leaders to have an immediate answer ready when asked sexuality-related questions. Other comments described surprise at similarities seemingly shared between those with same-sex attraction and single people, as well as the need for more discussion around transgender issues.”
The EMC Ministerial felt a poignant and real sense of burden and love for folks in our midst with same-sex attraction. We saw clearly from biblical teaching that the Bible rejects same-sex behaviour, and we also saw clearly from biblical teaching that Jesus extends lavish welcome and forgiveness to sinners, drawing them into his ministry.
The woman at the well in Samaria is a vivid example of how Jesus could have a frank and compelling conversation with someone who then immediately became an energetic evangelist for Christ. But pastors also need to be careful not to put pressure on themselves to always get every issue just right. This can be a vision, a goal for us in our conversation with all kinds of people in our midst. May the Lord draw us deeper into his truth and may the Lord fill us with the Spirit of love.