Sunday morning, Willow Creek Community Church Senior Pastor Bill Hybels switched gears from the classic sermon format to an 45 minute Q&A with congregants and individuals following along on Twitter. While most of the questions focused on personal aspects of Hybels life, such as favorite book and Bible verse, one dealt with abortion, and two touched on the LGBT community.
“For the last three weeks we have proclaimed hope for the global poor. Will our church ever be able to proclaim hope for the LGBT community?” inquired one Willow Creek congregant. In his off-the-cuff remarks, Hybels emotionally recalled a memory from the fourth grade. Several kids he knew beat up a little boy they dubbed, “queer” based on his physical stature. After that day, the boy never returned to school. For Hybels this was a “defining moment” that shaped his approach to the LGBT in ministry.
“I’ve probably had over the forty years two hundred people from this church, many of you right in this room, come out to me because I’m your pastor. And those are precious moments.” However, Hybels noted that Willow Creek Community Church “holds the traditional Biblical view that marriage should be between a man and a woman and that sexual relationships should be reserved for that union and all the rest of us should be chaste and pure with our thoughts and sexuality.”
“But there has to be a way that we can hold onto the Biblical position of the traditional view of marriage and be respectful,” continued Hybels. “[A]nd inclusive to people in the LGBT community who are trying to live for God, love God, and trying to at least be a part of a church that won’t toss them.”
As an example of achieving both, Hybels mentions a Saturday night small group comprised of same-sex attracted Christians which he leads at Willow Creek. Hybels and the fourteen other small group members don’t just spend time talking about gay issues. I appreciate that. Our culture is consumed with measuring worth based on sexuality labels. Yet there’s more to people who struggle with same-sex attraction than just their sexual attraction. As one of my bright friends recently explained, some Christians with same-sex attraction might struggle more with the sin of pride or seeking approval from man. I’m thankful Hybels recognizes we shouldn’t reduce people to their sexuality.
“I dream of the day when our church has a heart filled with no partiality, just open embrace,” Hybels concluded.
This all sounds nice and good. But I wish Hybels hadn’t tried so hard to ride the fence as closely as he can. What does he mean when he says “gay Christian?” Specifically, when dealing with such a topic it’s helpful for our church leaders to clearly define their terms. What does an “open embrace” look like? What does “inclusive” mean and what are the implications?
Christians are struggling to uphold our convictions on sexuality and marriage while also showing love and respect to same-sex attracted individuals inside and outside the Church. But this doesn’t play out as neatly as Hybels describes. The problem is, for many in the LGBT community, love and respect don’t go far enough without affirmation of intimate same-sex relationships. Hybels never mentions what to do if his congregants own a bakery and their conscience stirs them to decline servicing a same-sex wedding ceremony.
Ultimately, Hybels fails to answer his congregant’s question, “Will our church ever be able to proclaim hope for the LGBT community?”
It’s possible the question is substituting the word affirmation for the word hope. But that’s speculation. Because it asks about the proclamation of hope for the LGBT community. A seemingly easy answer for one of America’s most influential Evangelical pastors. The church is proclaiming real hope in Jesus Christ. Oh yes, there is sufficient hope for the LGBT community and for every other broken person on this earth struggling with sin. But it isn’t provided for by a church alone, but by the life-changing Gospel. There is a better way. It’s the goodness and mercy of Jesus Christ that provides real hope.
No matter how affirming of homosexuality a church is, embracing sin is never loving nor hopeful.
Please note, this is a very complex issue that I cannot adequately tackle in a blog post, nor Pastor Hybels could tackle off in 13 minutes. For more resources on loving and respecting Christians with same-sex attraction while also upholding Biblical teaching on sexuality, please see Sam Allberry at Living Out, Rosaria Butterfield, and watch the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission on the Gospel and Homosexuality.