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Redefining Culture Wars

AG pastors urge a more compassionate approach when countering homosexuality

By Robert Mims
March 20, 2011

Those on the front lines of America’s so-called culture wars say the fight to restore and uphold traditional marriage is just beginning.

Even in the wake of perceived victories — chief among them California’s state constitutional amendment defining marriage exclusively as a “one man, one woman” union — the tide toward legalizing same-sex marriage seems to be building anew. Although Golden State voters approved the measure in 2008, the fate of Proposition 8 has been in courts since a judge struck it down.

Fifteen years ago, a Gallup Poll found that more than two-thirds of Americans (68 percent) opposed same-sex marriage. Now, however, a majority of the nation’s citizens believe homosexual and lesbian couples should have a right to legally marry. Polls by the Cable News Network and The Associated Press last year showed that 52 percent of Americans support federal government recognition of same-sex marriages.

In a related debate, public opinion polls have shown a similar shift on the Pentagon’s long-standing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on homosexuals openly serving in the military. In December, Congress passed legislation to repeal the ban, which had been in place since 1993.

Has the church lost the culture war? Leaders in the movement to defend the sanctity of traditional marriage and Christian values say that depends on how the battlefield is defined, along with what truly constitutes victory.

“The political approach is not working, nor will it work in the future,” says Pastor Scott Estep of Dayspring Church in Bowling Green, Ohio. In November, Estep watched his community polarize over measures to add sexual orientation to local housing and employment anti-discrimination laws. The votes came down to 50-50 splits; it took several weeks for election officials to finally determine both measures had narrowly passed.

Members of the Assemblies of God Dayspring congregation played key roles in opposing the legislation. While he does not regret the stand, Estep also suggests it is time to revise tactics in the ongoing battle for traditional family values.

“The cause of Christ would be better served by Christians who take a genuine interest in those who struggle with same-sex orientation,” Estep says. “We need to learn about them, befriend them and move them into the kingdom of God instead of putting all our eggs in the legislation basket.”

Estep says Christians also need to pay attention to sexual sins inside the church — such as cohabitation, children out of wedlock, and pornography — in order to have credibility in the debate of sexual behavioral trends in society at large.

Like Estep, Bradley Trask, senior pastor of Brighton (Mich.) Assembly of God, is not ready to concede that the battle is lost. However, he calls for better education of Christians regarding the homosexual marriage issue and a renewed commitment to sharing the gospel with everyone.

Trask says Christians need to repent of the sin of labeling and ignoring homosexuals, and prepare to make room for people who are struggling in this area within churches, just as with other sexual sin issues.

“If they know they are cared for, genuine change can occur,” he says.

Trask says that in the turmoil of the national homosexual rights debate, many have forgotten that God’s forgiveness extends to all. Those who once practiced homosexual behavior but repented and put their faith in Jesus are forgiven, he says.

Quoting from 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Trask points out that Paul reminded early Christians that penitent former homosexuals had been sanctified and justified in the name of Jesus, along with reformed idolators, thieves, drunkards and adulterers.

“Jesus Christ can forgive sinners, and Jesus Christ can change sinners,” Trask says.

Those points are underscored by Pastor Jim Hennesy of Trinity Church, an AG congregation in Cedar Hill, Texas. He argues that evangelical Christians erred in politicizing two sins in particular — abortion and homosexuality — while neglecting greed, gluttony, adultery and other moral issues tearing at the fabric of society.

“We built self-righteousness into a culture by disproportions,” Hennesy says. “No one marches against gluttony or gossip.” He emphasizes that he does not retreat from the conviction that homosexuality is sinful.

“Our strategy should remain unrelentingly toward the message of the Cross,” Hennesy says. “The identification of sin and grace greater than sin should find fertile soil as the impact of sin comes to fruition.”

It will be a new generation of laypeople and ministers who continue to fight the so-called culture wars in the years ahead, according to Garland Owensby, an assistant professor specializing in youth ministry at Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie, Texas.

He says followers of Jesus need to stand for Christian family values in the public square. “We can’t just allow the government to dictate what is moral and immoral,” says Owensby.

Standing for what is right can be served just as effectively — perhaps more so — by reaching out, Owensby says. He notes that Southwestern students have established book clubs at coffeehouses in homosexual areas of Dallas to discuss such issues as masculinity within the context of a fatherless family.

“If we preach against homosexuality without having a relationship with the homosexual community, our preaching comes across as harsh rather than compassionate,” Owensby says. Instead, he says it’s helpful “to develop a relationship with someone who needs the grace of God as much as we do as sinners.”

ROBERT MIMS is a journalist based in Salt Lake City.

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