Christians in the Middle East face challenges that are unique to their culture. I will often hear the same twenty questions asked on a given subject when speaking to different audiences in the United States but then get twenty different questions from a single audience in the Middle East. Different cultures create different challenges. That makes speaking internationally both challenging and interesting.
Last month, I was invited to teach in a Palestinian culture, in the West Bank of Israel. One of the topics I was asked to address was homosexuality. The vast majority (approximately 90%) of the audience consisted of Palestinian Christians and Muslims. The remainder were skeptics and atheists. Being Arabs in a Middle Eastern milieu, virtually all of them held the view that homosexual behavior was sin or - for the skeptics and atheists - forbidden. That’s not surprising given that both the Bible (Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 1 Tim. 1:10) and the Quran (Surah 7:80-84) prohibit homosexual sex.
During my interaction with the religious Palestinians, there was never a hint of compromise about what their respective religious texts taught. They were unwavering about God’s design for sex and marriage. I was free, then, to move past arguments responding to pro-gay theology. That was refreshing.
Palestinians err on the other side of the spectrum. They get the truth right. What they lack is compassion. There is a strong cultural tide against not only people who engage in homosexual sex but also those who experience same-sex attraction. These people are shunned and shamed. There’s very little opportunity for them to share what they’re experiencing and find a compassionate response.
Unfortunately, that attitude has carried over into the church. Not only have Palestinian Christians adopted the culture’s mindset, but also their church leadership isn’t talking about homosexuality, training believers to understand it, or equipping them with practical principals to help those struggling with same-sex attraction. If a Palestinian Christian experiences homosexual desires but doesn’t want to satisfy those desires in thought or deed, there’s a dearth of options to find support. Though they may want to live obediently to the commands of Christ, it’s rare for them to find a Christian community that will walk with them through their struggle.
That’s why I considered it a privilege to speak to fellow believers about this topic. I began by painting a positive picture of what the Bible teaches about sex and marriage, followed by showing that Scripture is univocal in its teaching that homosexual fantasy and behavior is sin. Since that is not where these Palestinians struggled, I didn’t focus my attention there.
Instead, I wanted them to walk away with some practical principles that could help them navigate their relationships with friends and family who struggle with same-sex attraction but desire to live a godly life. In many cases, these believers know homosexual fantasy and behavior is sin but need help knowing how to proceed. Here are three principles (not exhaustive by any means) I shared with the group.
- Make your relationship with them a high priority. In other words, don’t distance yourself from them; move towards them. Relationships are a bridge by which we can show compassion, tell people the truth, or share the gospel (Luke 19:1-10). Your ability to influence them will be a function of your relationship with them.
- Don’t make homosexuality out to be the worst sin. For many reasons, some believers treat the sin of homosexuality as the most grievous, the supreme abomination against God. Although the Bible does place the sin of homosexuality in the group of sexual sins committed “against the body” (1 Cor. 6:18), it doesn’t elevate it above every other sin. Sometimes, even though we don’t say it’s the worst sin, we often communicate the same message by how we treat people who struggle with same-sex attraction.
- Create a safe environment for faithful Christians who experience same-sex attraction and struggle with godly living. That doesn’t mean compromise biblical standards. It just means that a person who struggles with homosexual desires may, at times, succumb to that temptation in thought or deed. We can’t just blast them with a Bible verse and expect perfection. As long as they are repentant, they need our prayer, support, accountability, and love. That’s how we address any other believer who struggles with a different sin. If they are not repentant, however, then we should address them and their sin the way Jesus (Matt 18:15-17) and Paul did (1 Cor. 5:1-13).
It was exciting to see the Palestinians eagerly receive this teaching. It’s also encouraging because they’ll turn around and influence their own culture with what they learned. I’m thankful I was able to play a small part in equipping these believers to be salt and light in their culture.