After almost fifty years of life in our youth ministry world, I’ve become more and more convinced that it’s vitally important to lead our conversations about God’s good design for sex and gender by celebrating and communicating what God is for. The now-familiar cliche that “We need to communicate what God is for rather than what God is against” is wise advice in so many ways and for so many reasons. We can unpack that at another time.
But this morning, I’m sitting here thinking about the need to cite what God is against as a kind of warning, all because of the fact that there are many among us whose message on what God is for is faulty, mis-leading, and terribly dangerous. In fact, it’s the kind of message Paul warns Timothy about in II Timothy 3. At the time. . . and during our times. . . folly was being preached. But then Paul calls Timothy to preach and teach the Word (II Timothy 4:1-5). His “You, however. . .” (II Timothy 3:10) marching orders to Timothy are marching orders for us as well.
What’s prompted these thoughts specifically is a conversation I listened in to yesterday between my friend Sean McDowell and Alan Shlemon from Stand To Reason. They had a 90-minute conversation about Alan’s visit to Andy Stanley’s Unconditional Conference that was held last Thursday and Friday at Stanley’s North Point Community Church in Atlanta (I’ve embedded Sean and Alan’s conversation below).
At the same time that the conference was going on, I was in Canada for a week teaching college and grad students about faith and culture. We looked at the importance of theology and doctrine, about how theology and doctrine inform behavior, how to exegete culture, and how to bring the truths of God’s Word to bear on the realities that exist in the world of our children, teens, and families. This included one day spent on matters of sex and gender, an issue I’ve been studying in depth over the last six years. . . all in an effort to help parents, youth workers, and myself navigate these confusing times with faithfulness to God according to His good and glorious plan for sex and gender. . . all of which is laid out clearly in the Scriptures.
As I’ve been processing yesterday’s conversation (please give it a look. . . it’s required viewing!), I can’t help but think that everything we addressed last week in class and that we’ve been communicating here at CPYU for years was on full display yesterday. Wisdom and discernment are so desperately needed in today’s cultural setting. Sadly, I’m afraid that muddy teaching, a lack of clarity (intentional most of the time), and outright heresy on matters of sex and gender are being absorbed due to the fact that we are following messengers without evaluating their messages in light of the Scriptures. We can’t do that with anybody who teaches. . . myself included.
As you spend time listening to Sean and Alan’s balanced, wise, and discerning report on what did and did not happen at the Unconditional Conference, I want to remind you of several strong messages that we work to communicate over and over again here at CPYU. . . all without apology. I hope you will do the same with the kids you know, love, and lead.
First, good and faithful theology matters and it has to be consciously read, studied, and embraced. Theology is not optional. If it is not explicitly taught, it is still being taught. And when theology is deliberately detoured on the road to only teaching functionality and practice, it’s still implicitly there. More often than not, when an end-around is done which “avoids” theology in order to get to practice, the theology will most likely be erroneous and bad. . . which then leads to mis-informed and equally erroneous practice. On the LGBTQ issue I have heard it said that youth workers never ask, “What should I believe?” Rather, they ask “What should I do?” To take that approach is a huge mistake on the LGBTQ issue and on every other possible issue on which we are called to teach, preach, and lead. How can we tell people what to do without first telling them what to believe? Those of us who choose to answer only that second question while avoiding answering the first. . . shame on us. Here’s the thing: behavior is always downstream from belief. Eventually, those who avoid belief to jump right to behavior occasion a situation where suddenly belief is now downstream from behavior. Our habits do indeed form. . . or de-form. . . us.
Second, those of us who teach and lead. . . whether youth workers, parents, or pastors. . . must know and tell the truth. Not only does this include the teaching of the truths from God’s Word on sex and gender, but the speaking of truth in our one-to-one conversations with those who have been misled by falsehood and are thus traveling the wide road that leads to destruction. This is especially true in our interactions with our kids, who developmentally are at a point where they are easily influenced and choosing now what to believe and how to behave for the rest of their lives. Culture is catechizing them 24/7 and usually doing so in ways that don’t get it right. Our efforts at knowing and communicating truth have to be on point and constant.
Third, we are fooling ourselves to think that we are helping our kids when we equate love with affirmation. Do any of us seriously believe that we are faithfully and obediently doing our job as youth workers or parents when we simply encourage kids to live into any and every desire they have and feel? If we do, we don’t belong in youth ministry and we shouldn’t be parenting. If our job is only to let them live into their desires then it’s silly to think that the job to lead should even exist. Maybe it’s time to recapture and embrace our callings. If you are still wondering about leaving our kids to their own inclinations, re-read your copy of Lord of the Flies.
Fourth, “I love you enough to tell you the truth” should be near the top of our list of youth ministry mantras and commitments. Yes, we have to have to show sensitivity, grace, and deep ongoing kindness to any kid who is grappling with any kind of broken desire or sinful behavior. There is no compromising on that fact. . . none whatsoever. But let’s remember that love is not the same thing as affirmation. Love looks out for the best and it communicates truths. . . sometimes hard truths. . . which need to be heard by someone who is way off-course and lost in sin. I need it. You need it. Our kids need it. And, in the context of sensitive, grace-filled, and kind relationships, truth can and will be heard. It breaks my heart to hear a growing host of de-transitioners calling out those who simply affirmed and lied to them when they were younger. “Why didn’t you tell me?!?” is a begging question we’re going to be hearing more and more. . . and we will be hearing it in court-rooms.
Fifth, pronouns offer us an option to lie or to tell the truth. Last week we had a conversation in class about what’s been called “pronoun hospitality.” It’s the belief that maybe when I first meet you I don’t want to offend you or see you walk away from me. Therefore, I will call you by your preferred pronouns, even if those pronouns aren’t the pronouns which describe the male or female you’ve been made by God to be. Again, well-intentioned. However, this is horribly min-informed. In the first place, we are called to be truth-tellers. . . and this is an outright lie. I want to be a trusted truth-teller. To think that I’m jettisoning a possible relationship by making this choice to live and communicate into truth is horribly mis-informed. You and I can and must pursue relationships of care, love, grace, and concern by telling the truth. I recently read Miriam Grossman’s Lost In Trans-Nation: A Child Psychiatrist’s Guide Out of the Madness. At the beginning of the book she writes a few paragraphs in a section called “A Note on Language.” She includes this: “We face crusade, a juggernaut, that seeks to demolish male and female, and its success hinges on the control of language. Under those circumstances, to call a man ‘she’ is not a kindness, it’s a concession – to a scheme to control our belief and advance an agenda, one pronoun at a time. In this book, I emphasize that male and female, after being established at conception, are permanent. I urge parents to be honest and consistent with their children, and to at all times stay grounded in biological reality. I have always done that in my office, and I’m not going to stop now. . . Finally, with each pronoun capitulation. . . I will have fostered his delusion, perhaps moving him further along a dangerous path. . . all because of words and ‘kindness.'” In her book, Grossman goes on to speak about the assembly line of the trans ideology and transition. The first step on the assembly line is pronouns. . . then social transitioning. . . then puberty blockers. . . then cross-sex hormone treatments. . . then surgery. I can’t prescribe puberty blockers or hormones. Neither can I perform surgery. I’m not a doctor. But I can encourage kids to get on the assembly line in the first place by my use of pronouns. Think about it. For the Christian, there’s only one way to do this, and it’s not through “pronoun hospitality.” The old saying goes that “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I love how our friend Rosaria Butterfield has stepped up and repented of her mis-use of pronouns. She’s invited all of us to follow her lead. (Stay tuned for a conversation I had with Rosaria on our Youth Culture Matters podcast which will drop in a couple of weeks.)
Sixth, a half-truth is more dangerous than a complete lie. Be careful who you listen to and be sure to evaluate it all under the lens of Scripture rightly-interpreted and understood. Enough said.
Finally, Jesus always says “Come as you are.” He never says to those who come, “Stay as you are.” Justification can never be de-tethered from sanctification. If that happens, there will be no fruit. Neither is there true conversion. And where there is no fruit. . . well, you know what comes next. For years now I’ve been reminding myself and those I teach to pay careful attention to John 8. . . especially in a culture and church environment where we have come to believe that Jesus says “Do not judge.” We fail to understand the difference between loving discernment/correction, and condemnation to Hell. Jesus was telling us to stay away from the latter. That’s God’s job, not ours. And his loving grace-filled freedom-giving sanctification-defining message to the woman caught in the act of adultery was “Go and sin no more.” When we come to Jesus he says the same to us. We are to recognize our depraved nature and endeavor with the help of the Holy Spirit, the means of grace, and the loving discipline of our fellow believers to mortify our sin.
I want to encourage you again to take the time to listen to Sean and Alan’s conversation. When Alan says that “If I wanted to quietly mainstream pro-gay theology and transgender ideology into the evangelical church, I would build this conference,” he is spot on. When he issues the hard words that “Andy Stanley is either naive, or he is crafty” he is spot on again.
The ideology that’s creeping into the church is widespread in today’s culture. Standing up for truth will be costly. I was thinking today about what happened to 16-year-old Josh Alexander when earlier this year he voiced his concerns and moral objections to his high school’s transgender bathroom policies. Take a minute to learn what happened.
Tim Keller has written that “Foolishness is to be destructively out of touch with the reality of God’s created order.” We need to be wise. We need to get this right.
Editor’s Note: Consider joining Walt Mueller and Duffy Robbins for our CPYU Symposium on Traditional Biblical Sexuality in a Changing Youth Culture to be held November 7-10, 2023, in Lancaster, PA. Registration is limited to 25 participants and a few spots are still available. Learn more and register here.