Ministry to Those with Same-Sex Attraction and Gender Confusion

Timothy J. Geiger

One might assume that there is no subject too controversial to discuss in the twenty-first century.[1] Social mores have fallen right and left over the previous three decades, to the extent that nothing seems shocking anymore.

Yet there are two topics that may seem too tender to touch, particularly in the Reformed church: sex and gender confusion. The reasons for this are many and diverse, and the purpose of this article is not to debate them. As a pastor, and as the leader of a para-church ministry that interacts with thousands of sexually-struggling and confused Christians annually, I make a singular appeal: we in the Reformed church must talk about sexual sin and sexual struggles among the members of our churches.

Here are three simple reasons why leaders must address same-sex attraction and gender confusion, in particular:

1. Scripture plainly tells us that temptation to sin of a sexual nature is a common temptation—whether that particular temptation is to sin of a heterosexual, homosexual, or transgender nature. Not every Christian will experience temptation to all possible types of sexual sin, but every Christian will experience temptation to at least one of them. One citation that illustrates this point is 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.”

2. If the church is silent about biblical sexuality, sexual sin, and repentance, and the fact that it is common for those in the church to struggle sexually, it misses an opportunity to address one of the chief ways in which church members and their families fall into idolatry and unbelief. There is not a member of a Reformed church anywhere in the Western world who is not bombarded daily with sexualized images and enticements to sexual sin. Our members—particularly those under the age of thirty—are developing worldviews regarding sex, sexuality, and gender which are radically at odds with Scripture. We must speak the truth in love into the often-silent spiritual battle being waged in the hearts of our members.

3. Sin of a sexual nature is already part of the church. It should no longer be the priority of church officers and leaders to build a high wall to keep sin out of the church. It is already here, and has been here for longer than we think.[2] We must actively call our members stuck in patterns of secret sexual sin to walk in faith and repentance. We, as their leaders and brothers and sisters, have a covenantal obligation and privilege to do so.[3] I should note that the object of this holy ministry of discipleship is to restore the brother or sister to God and to the church.

Common Obstacles For Sexual Strugglers in the Church

Sean[4] sat in my office, visibly shaken. As he told me the story of his thirty-year struggle with same-sex attraction and secret homosexual behavior, he didn’t once look up from the floor. With his wife’s discovery of his sin last week, Sean sat convinced that his marriage, family, career, and reputation were all lost.

Sean had been a deacon and an active member of his church for years. So, I asked him why he never asked anyone in his church for help. After all, he was a member of a larger church with plenty of pastoral and counseling resources.

The answer came after a moment of thought: “I was afraid.”

“I was afraid” hardly took me by surprise. As a matter of fact, it’s the response that roughly 90 percent of people give when asked that same question. But what was Sean afraid of?

The same things that many people fear. Some are valid; others, irrational. Regardless of the facts, to the Christian earnestly struggling with same-sex attraction or gender confusion, these fears constitute reality. Pastors and other leaders need to be aware of these fears in order to publicly minimize them, thereby making the gateway to confession and repentance as wide as possible.

Here is a list of twelve common sources of fear that often paralyze sexual strugglers in the church:

1. Shame. Not all shame is bad, but this shame is distorted, disproportionate, and crippling. Strugglers generally believe that they have sinned so greatly that they have no means of redemption.

2. Guilt. Guilt not so much over specific sinful acts, but a pervasive, overwhelming sense of guilt that leads the struggler to feel hopelessly separated from God.

3. Fear of exposure. Control is a significant feature in the lives of secret sexual strugglers. To many, exposure of the sin equates to a loss of control and the ability to carefully maintain the struggler’s façade, often crafted to mask the underlying struggle.

4. Fear of judgment. Also known as “fear of man.” The opinions of others are disproportionately important for many secret sexual strugglers. Consequently, the potential to be judged by another[5] is too great a risk to take.

5. Culture of deception and self-deception. Secret sexual strugglers have generally kept their struggle secret for years, perhaps decades, through an intensive series of lies and other deceitful activities aimed both at others—to keep them unaware of the struggle (or the extent of the struggle), and at themselves, to justify their behavior.

6. Saying, “I’m the only one. No one else in the church struggles like this.” Same-sex and gender strugglers often perceive that no one else in the church struggles with these issues.[6] This reinforces the already-present feeling that they are different than others, and if different, then they are alone.

7. Saying, “Real Christians don’t struggle with sin of a sexual nature.” The same-sex or gender struggler often believes that he or she may not be an authentic Christian, inferring (incorrectly) that one mark of genuine faith is the absence of serious, even life-dominating sin patterns.[7]

8. Believing that same-sex attraction, homosexual sin, and gender confusion are worse than other types of sin. This conclusion is generally drawn either from the experience of personal guilt and shame, and/or a misinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:18.[8]

9. Fear of church discipline. There may be the fear that confession of sin will automatically lead to the exercise of discipline in the church, which the struggler anticipates will be shaming.

10. Prior, unsuccessful attempts at change. Those struggling with same-sex attraction or gender confusion often report the onset of their attraction and/or struggle around age eleven. So, the average forty-year-old adult who struggles will have been battling this temptation and sin (unsuccessfully) for nearly thirty years. That long of a struggle will often prove disheartening and will make the struggler less liable to attempt to walk in repentance again.

11. A functional misunderstanding of grace. Many secret strugglers will not understand the nature or extent of God’s grace. Because of their own “track record” in pleasing the Lord, they generally perceive that God’s grace both to save and to refrain from sin operates differently for them than it does for others.

12. Misunderstanding the real problem. Virtually all sexual strugglers view their problem as being behavioral in nature. In reality, the behavior is merely the fruit of the real problem, which is idolatry, located in the heart.[9]

Hopefully as you’ve read through this list of common obstacles to sexual strugglers coming forward for help, you’ve begun to think of some ways to circumvent these obstacles in your own church. I’ll share a few concrete ways to break down these barriers later in this article. You may find others on our website at harvestusa.org.

What Is the Real Problem?

To begin to help someone is to understand the nature of their struggle. And to do that, we need to move past the superficial manifestations of sinful behavior in one’s life.

Treating sin is a bit like treating an illness. While there are times you treat symptoms, a doctor will generally treat the underlying cause of those symptoms. To refuse to treat the underlying cause will only lead to a recurrence of those symptoms—or ones that are even more troubling.

Scripture indicates that the cause of sinful behavior—the “sin behind the sin,” if you will—is idolatry. In Luke 6:43–45, Jesus tells us that it shouldn’t surprise us when we see sinful behavior in the lives of others; it is merely the overflow of that which controls their heart.

Seeing idolatry as the primary problem to be addressed pastorally doesn’t excuse the sinfulness, or the consequences of outward sinful behavior. It does, however, give pastors, leaders, and strugglers a “root” sin to focus on, rather than only dealing with the superficial manifestations of that sin. After all, if you merely pull off the part of the weed you see above ground, the weed will grow back—and quickly. But if you pull out the root, the leaves and fruit come along with it—and it will not return.

What are some of the underlying idols that lead to sinful behavior of a sexual nature? They are common idols, and in and of themselves, in their proper context, they are generally good desires. Good desires that, in our sinful seeking for self-importance and self-worship, become disordered. To quote Tim Keller,[10] the otherwise good desire becomes for us an ultimate desire, which must be satisfied, no matter the cost. That is when the desire becomes an idol.

Some of these common idols are: love, a positive self-image, affirmation, affection, security, freedom from pain or suffering, control, comfort, being understood, and intimacy. Sin of a sexual nature can give a plausible counterfeit that these desires are being satisfied (albeit in ungodly ways). To the extent they are truly idols for us, we make excuses to justify our need, and therefore, our behavior.

Steps You Can Take to Help Sexual Strugglers

Each one of the following measures is only effective to the extent that it takes place within the context of an authentic relationship with you or with someone else in the church. The goal of this ministry must be reconciliation: leading the sinner to become a more fully-engaged, fully functional member of the church. That goal is reached only through the medium of real, authentic, life-on-life relationship with another brother or sister in the church.[11]

Here are concrete action steps you can take in your church both to encourage secret sexual strugglers to come into the light, and then to help them walk in repentance.

1. Focus on discipleship. If the real issue to deal with is idolatry, then the real place to begin is with discipleship. Focus in your discipleship relationship not merely on knowing facts, but on the experiential reality of those facts in the life of the believer. In other words, help the struggler to wrestle with the question: “What difference does the life, death, resurrection, and reign of Jesus Christ make for me in the particular areas in which I struggle?” Help the struggler to understand his or her major idols, and then work through particular strategies to see Jesus as strong and able to help when those specific desires cry out to be satisfied.

2. Model and expect proactive accountability. Accountability isn’t supposed to be purely reactive in nature (“This is what I’ve done”); it is supposed to be proactive, and as such, it is meant to head off sin in the first place (“This is what I’m feeling and where I’m making room in my life for sin”). Here are some questions to ask in the course of practicing proactive accountability with a sexual struggler:

a. What are the idols that are controlling my heart, thoughts, and desires today?

b. In what particular ways am I making room in my life for sin today?

c. In what particular ways do I need to be severe in cutting off the means to sin in my life today?

d. In what particular ways am I consciously denying the sovereignty of God over my life today?

e. In what particular ways am I refusing to submit myself to the ordinary means of grace[12] for help in my struggle against sin today?

3. Make repeated invitations for your church’s sexual strugglers to come forward for help. Keep in mind all of the obstacles mentioned earlier. Make repeated invitations publicly and privately in your preaching, teaching, announcements, and personal conversations for people to come forward to you (or specific others in the church) for help. Communicate that your church is a safe place for people to be broken and to seek repentance.

4. Offer training to your church officers, women leaders, and other non-ordained leaders to help. There are any number of resources that are helpful; you can contact us at harvestusa.org for specific suggestions. Any resources you use should equip your leaders to engage with strugglers at a heart level (i.e., talking more about idols than behavior) and should equip your leaders to engage in ongoing relationship (discipleship) with strugglers.

5. Make it an expectation in your church that everyone is involved in some sort of small group fellowship. This might include home groups, men’s or women’s groups, or cell groups—but make it a church-wide expectation that everyone is under the care and within the view of an elder or another trusted, mature leader. It’s much more difficult to remain isolated and in secret sin when you’re in close fellowships with others.

6. Intentionally create discipleship relationships in your church. Match up more mature men with younger men and more mature women with younger women (vis a vis Titus 2) for discipleship relationships. Before doing so, provide training for your mentors/disciples and then provide ongoing support and encouragement for them.

7. Offer a confidential ministry for sexual strugglers in your church. Not an addictions ministry or a twelve-step program, but a facilitated, peer-support group with a focus on life-on-life discipleship.[13]

8. Pray. Pray yourself, and ask a group of men and women in your church to gather together to pray on a regular basis that the Lord would bring forward members and attenders caught in secret sexual sin—and that when they do come forward, you and the rest of the church would be ready and able to help.

9. Be patient. A struggle with same-sex attraction or with gender confusion generally has a long, complex, and painful history. It is not easily overcome. Temptation, and actual struggles with that temptation, may never go away completely. Even if they do, it will likely take a long time. So, be patient with the sinner, as Paul exhorts us in 1 Thessalonians 5:11. And, restore him or her gently, as Paul exhorts in Galatians 6:1.

As you are no doubt aware, this is a complex and long-duration issue for the church to handle. Yet we must handle it, since one of the chief objectives of the church is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to [maturity]” (Eph. 4:12–13).

There are many resources available to you for help in this task, Harvest USA among them. But the church’s chief resource is the Holy Spirit, who works to sanctify his people and to give them the grace and wisdom necessary for discipleship. Ask for that grace and wisdom from him. He will not withhold it from you.


[1] This article is based on an address given at the pre-assembly conference on June 8, 2016, entitled “Marriage, Sexuality, and Faithful Witness,” sponsored by the Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

[2] Numerous citations in Scripture humbly remind us that sin of a sexual nature, including homosexual behavior and gender-confused behavior, was a major problem among both Old Testament and New Testament believers.

[3] See Galatians 6:1–2; 1 Thessalonians 5:11, 14.

[4] Not his real name.

[5] The fear of judgment is linked directly to the struggler’s sense of identity. To have that carefully constructed identity challenged through the judgment of another is tantamount to being told, “You’re worthless,” or, “You’re a fraud.” One way pastors and leaders may combat this fear is to teach, preach and counsel strongly and consistently that one’s true identity comes from God alone (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 2:20).

[6] In fact, they are not alone. Studies have shown that as many as 11% of adolescents and young adults struggle with significant same-sex attraction (G. Remafedi, “Demography of Sexual Orientation in Adolescents,” Pediatrics, 89(4) (April, 1992): 714–721). Scientifically reliable estimates of transgender individuals don’t exist to my knowledge, primarily because persons experiencing gender dysphoria (the clinical name for gender confusion) are generally more “closeted” than those experiencing same-sex attraction. However, one estimate cited by ABC News was that there are approximately 700,000 transgender individuals in the United States: about two-tenths of one percent of the population (7 Questions Answered about Transgender People, Mary Kathryn Burke, posted on abcnews.go.com on 08/15/2015 and accessed on 07/02/2016).

[7] The Apostle Paul authored 2 Corinthians to Christians (“To the church of God … with all the saints,” 1:1) but lamented with grave warning near the end of the letter that there were some in the church who refused to repent of sexual sin (12:21). WCF 17.3 states that it is possible for Christians to “fall into grievous sins, for a time, and continue therein.”

[8] The limits of this article do not permit a full discussion of this point. Suffice it to say that sin of a sexual nature has different consequences for the individual and the church, as it does specific violence to God’s covenant of grace. This does present particular pastoral challenges. However, there is nothing in Scripture indicating that sin of a sexual nature is forensically worse in God’s eyes than any other kind of sin.

[9] Matthew 15:18–20; Luke 6:43–45.

[10] Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters (London: Penguin, 2009), ix.

[11] We encourage that male sexual strugglers work with male leaders and mentors, and that female strugglers work with female leaders and mentors. This follows the biblical model for discipleship explained in Titus 2:2–6.

[12] The term “ordinary means of grace” as used here includes, but is not limited to: reading and meditating on Scripture, prayer, confession of sin, fellowship, accountability, participation in private and public worship.

[13] Harvest USA can help your church, no matter how large or small, start an intentional ministry to function as an outworking of your ordinary pastoral oversight. Contact us at harvestusa.org to find out how.

Timothy J. Geiger is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is president of Harvest USA, a ministry that has worked since 1983 to help sexual strugglers to walk in repentance, and to equip the church to help its members who struggle sexually. Ordained Servant Online, August 2016.

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Contact the Editor: Gregory Edward Reynolds

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Ordained Servant: August–September 2016

Marriage, Sexuality and Faithful Witness

Also in this issue

The Path to—and from—Here: Reflections on Sexual Identity Past and Present

Living under Foreign Law

Sexuality These Days: A Review Article

What Is Marriage? by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George

On His Blindness

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