Paper presented at the Global Consultation on Christian Witness to Nominal Christians, Rome, Italy, 14 – 18 March 2018
William Willimon, an American Methodist pastor, begins his Lenten reflection, “Repent,” with these words: “The church of today lives in an ethically debilitating climate. Where did we go wrong?” By “we” he means the church, not the world to which the church of Jesus Christ ministers, but the church itself. He speaks of “the civic-club mentality of the heirs to the Social Gospel … TV triumphalism … open-mindedness as the supreme virtue.”[
1. Nominalism in the area of sexual ethics
I ask myself this same question on a regular basis. My ministry for the past 25 years has been almost exclusively with church-related groups: students at seminaries in the non-Western world, recent converts from Islam being trained for Christian leadership, and parents and other adults who deal with teenagers. My focus is primarily on teen sexual morality, but the adults with whom I meet also ask for help in dealing with sexual and relationship issues. I have ministered in many churches of many denominations around the world, and the situation with regard to sexual ethics is pretty much the same everywhere I go: Many who claim to be Christians, who are active in their churches, who believe the Bible is the Word of God, who say they are “born again” and who witness to their unbelieving friends – even they are living in clear contradiction to the teachings of the Word of God on sex and relationships. In the words of David Bennett, they are “followers of Christ only in name, not in reality or practice. Neither their beliefs nor their behaviors are a faithful reflection of the teachings or practices of Jesus and the apostles.” They are “nominal” Christians, Christian “in name or form only, as distinct from real or actual.”
Where did we go wrong?
And, more importantly, how can the problem be solved? What will it take for Christians to submit their intimate relationships to the Lordship of Christ? And what will it take for the church, globally, to realize its responsibility to challenge all those who call themselves “Christian” to do so?
2. How far have we come since Pattaya?
In sexual ethics, have we not regressed? Significantly regressed. The Lausanne Occasional Paper (LOP 23), Christian Witness to Nominal Christians among Protestants, the report of the Consultation held in Pattaya in 1980, called for “renewed churches … Our prayer for churches should not only be that they be better at talking, but that they should be more Christian in their living.” Yet even today, thirty-eight years later:
A Christian college student tells me, quite matter-of-factly, “I live with my boy-friend.” A youth pastor at an Evangelical church says he finds nothing in Scripture that says sexual intercourse before marriage is wrong. A Christian teenager tells her mother she wants to be a virgin when she marries, so she is only having oral sex with her boyfriend. Her mother asks me if this is okay. College students (and many older high school teens) purposely avoid developing a relationship with those with whom they have sex: the “hook up” culture. Christian parents accept their child’s desire to change their gender, and they arrange for hormone treatments and “sex reassignment” surgery to this end. Christian men and women commit adultery and divorce their spouses.
3. Foreseeable Trends
And if we consider current trends, the situation will continue to worsen:
A. Increasing legal implications of LGBTQ issues
On February 16, 2018, a court in the United States ordered a 17-year-old girl to be taken from her parents because they refused to authorize hormone treatments and sex reassignment surgery to enable her to “transition” from female to male and to refer to her using male pronouns. We can expect to see more such cases as government officials side with transgender activists to promote a radical view of the human person and endorse entirely experimental medical procedures.
It will become increasingly difficult for parents to act in the best interests of their children and for churches to preach the Word of God on sexual issues without legal repercussions. Already some time ago when I spoke at a church meeting in Brazil I was told not to mention homosexuality; the church could face legal action if anything deemed negative toward gays were said on its premises. Yet Christians want teaching and guidance on these issues, and the very first question asked at the end of the meeting was, “My daughter has a friend who is gay. She is asking me if that is okay. What should I tell her?”
B. Increasingly explicit and controversial sex education at ever younger ages
Sex education curricula in most secular schools throughout the Western world are “not about health, but about molding the attitudes of children. The goal is to produce students who respect and affirm nearly any type of sexual lifestyle. Teachers will promote an ideology which has nothing to do with disease prevention and everything to do with sexual license.” These are the words of Dr. Miriam Grossman, a pediatrician and psychiatrist in the United States, at a meeting in Toronto, Canada. This meeting was called because of fierce parental opposition to the new sex education curriculum in the province of Ontario.
In kindergartens in the United States, teachers are reading My Princess Boy to five year olds: “My Princess Boy loves his dad. His dad tells my Princess Boy how pretty he looks in a dress … a Princess Boy can wear a dress at his school and I will not laugh at him.”
Eleven-year-olds in the United Kingdom are shown a video claiming that “gender spectrum is unique and individual. The only thing that limits a person is their imagination. Only you can define your gender identity. It’s not just male or female; there are so many in between.”
C. Increasing numbers of singles, though not by choice
Gina Dalfonzo, in One by One,  goes in depth into the multifaceted reasons for this relatively new phenomenon. She also deals, at length, with what it is like to still be alone into your 30s and 40s. Some singles give up hope. Others give up hoping for a Christian spouse and, against their own better judgment but in desperation, marry a non-Christian.
D. Increasing identity crisis in young people
“Where do I find my identity?” This is a question young people are increasingly asking, whether consciously or unconsciously. Is it in my sexual orientation? Is it in my gender (“who I go to bed as, rather than who I go to bed with, as one young man described the difference)? Is it in my work? Is it in my marriage (which then leaves singles without an identity)?
E. Increasing social isolation
Is social media helping or hindering the development of deep and satisfying relationships? What about the constant need (the addiction?) to respond immediately to notifications on our cell phones? Or the increasing use of AI? Sherry Turkle, in Alone Together, tells of the response of one little girl who, when asked what she thought about a new AI that could attend to the needs of an elderly person, responded “Don’t they have any humans to do that?”
Youth pastors today assume that all the young men in their group struggle with pornography. Young men being trained for Christian ministry confess that they watch pornography because “How else would we know how to have sex?” One young man, who was engaged to be married, expressed concern in one of my seminars that his fiancé did not want to do some of the sexual things he was looking forward to once they were married. I didn’t ask “What kinds of things?” but I could only assume that he was referring to sexual acts he had seen on porn sites.
F. Sex with robots
As we know from the college sex scene, we have already come to the point where sex without relationships is the norm. Relationships are complicated; they require too much effort. We are now well on the way to sex without humans, where your robotic sexual partner can be programmed to be and do what you want “him”/”her” to be and do.
4. How does nominalism happen?
What causes nominalism in Christianity, and in sexual attitudes and behavior among Christians? In the Pattaya paper three categories of factors contributing to nominalism were discussed.
A. Philosophical. The Enlightenment led to hostility to the acceptance of divine truth. The world view of modern western society has become “exclusive humanism” and Christians have to a large extent unwittingly absorbed the tendencies of this world.
B. Sociological: The mobility of modern life, resulting in the breakdown of traditional communities, has resulted in a decrease in the influence of a “critical mass” of committed believers in one’s immediate environs. The resulting lack of accountability for sexual choices and the anonymity of the Internet have made it easier to engage in illicit relationships and makes using porn more tempting.
C. Ecclesiastical: The decreasing emphasis on the preaching of the Word of God, “a famine of the hearing of the Word of God” (Amos 8:11), means that there is no corrective to the secular world view.
5. Engaging and Equipping Nominals
What could be done in each of these categories to address the situation? If these are the causes, then it would seem self-evident that we begin thinking about how we could better engage and equip nominals by looking for ways to eliminate, or at least minimize, these factors
We need to be aware of the prevailing ideology of our time and of its influence on us. We need to be knowledgeable about the science of sexuality and relationships, and we need to show that as Christians we can think rationally about these issues. All truth is God’s truth, and we see over and over again how revealed truth and science agree. Paul’s teaching on how sex bonds (I Cor 6:16) is but one example; from neuroscience we now know about the bonding effects of neurochemicals in sexual activity. We must “be able to explain to ourselves and others what is wrong with the pervasive assumptions that often come labeled only as ‘the way all rational people think’.”
The Love and Fidelity Network is one example of this approach. On college campuses all across the United States its members use rational arguments to “equip college students to uphold on their campuses the institution of marriage, the special role of the family, and sexual integrity.”
First and foremost we need to look seriously at the whole issue of technology, in our own lives as adults and in the lives of our young people. We need to reestablish personal communication. Having dozens of “Friends” on Facebook or receiving “notifications” every few minutes on a cell phone does nothing to provide a sense of identity or of belonging. For that we need real community, people gathering together, talking face to face with each other, doing things together.
We need to set guidelines for using the Internet, addressing the issues of sexting and pornography directly and honestly.
We need to love those who pursue different life styles from ours, whether Christian or not. We need to appreciate the genuine emotional pain experienced by those who are attracted to the same sex or who suffer from gender dysphoria. We need to develop the kind of friendship with them that will enable us to share honestly and openly with each other, even when we don’t approve of the other’s lifestyle.
We need to be proactive in relation to the sex education in our schools, and claim the right to speak up. We need to de-emphasize sexual activity and, instead, encourage casual, non-sexual boy-girl relationships. We need to know what is best for our youth and find out what we can legally do; we dare not simply avoid acting because of fear.
The first step in becoming more effective in engaging and equipping nominals in the church, for each of us individually as for William Willimon, is to understand that “to be baptized ‘into Christ’ and ‘in the name of Christ’” should mean “to be incorporated into the way of life which characterized his life, the life of the empty one, the servant, the humble one, the obedient one, obedient even until death (Phil 2:6-11)… we must submit to change if we would be formed into this cruciform faith.” If I am to be a genuine Christian, as opposed to a “nominal” Christian, at the very least I will have a personal relationship with Christ; I will show that I love him by keeping his commandments and by loving my neighbor as myself; and my life will be dedicated to making disciples. We must be more Christlike in our living, and this can only happen as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Being more Christlike in our living means knowing and living by God’s revealed Word on sexuality and marriage. What did and does he intend?
In the very first book of the Bible we read, “So God created man in his own image … male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). Society distorts this picture, and the church needs to again proclaim strongly the truth that there are two sexes. We also need to point out that science corroborates this truth, that every cell in the human body is male or female. One’s sex cannot be “reassigned.”
In the second chapter of Genesis we read “For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and will be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). Jesus quoted this verse and added, “Therefore what God has joined let no man put asunder” (Mt 19:5; Mk 10:7). Sexual intimacy is clearly to take place only in the context of total commitment in marriage. It is intended to bond husband and wife. To treat sexual intimacy casually, as in the “hook-up” culture where relationship is purposely avoided, defies its purpose and ignores the emotional effects of promiscuous bonding (1 Cor 6:16).
The Apostle Paul wrote, “Although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him … Therefore, God gave them over … to sexual impurity … Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another” (Rom 1:21, 24-27). Leading scholars today refute the claim that this passage (and others in the Old Testament) is not relevant to “loving homosexual relationships” in our day. Gay “marriage” does not fulfill the purpose of rejoining with one’s “sexual other” (Gen 2:23-24).
Such messages should be preached and taught in the church on a regular basis, and pastors should not avoid “hot” topics such as transgender and ART (Assisted Reproductive Technology). Church members should know what the Bible says (or what can be inferred) about these topics so they can engage intelligently in conversation with nominals holding other views.
Some of today’s most pressing questions on the minds of young people especially, but not only, are questions relating to sex and relationships, and these questions are exactly those least dealt with by the church. This needs to change.
There should be training for parents to teach their own children about sex. Teaching on sexuality, like the teaching of any of God’s commandments, is primarily the responsibility of parents (Dt 6:7; 11:19). But because parents often feel inadequate and embarrassed about this topic, the church needs to help.
The church must also realize that every member is to do his or her part in the body. No pastor can, or should, do everything. Others in the church must be equipped and encouraged to help those who are struggling with sexual temptation, engaged in sexual sin, or questioning their sexual identity. Someone should be knowledgeable in legal matters and other potential problem areas. These members should be known to the congregation and known to be credible and approachable. They need not be professionals, but they should have a good grounding in the specific issue for which they are responsible.
The church should encourage its members to pay attention as they meet other members, at worship or other services at the church or at other times. They should, in a sense, contract to “be my brother’s keeper,” to notice when someone has a need, of whatever kind. The church as a whole should be sure to welcome everyone, young or old, married or single. As Gina Dalfonzo points out, sometimes it seems to singles that because they are not married with children their fellow Christians don’t know their real needs and desires and don’t take them seriously — that they are somehow not quite “adult” – when they should be recognized as valuable members of the body.
The church needs to take to heart the words of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations: “Scripture speaks of virgins and a Virgin Birth, of the erotic and the carnal, of heterosexual and homosexual behaviors, of the body and the flesh. Does the youth group your son or daughter attends ever address these issues? If not, the weekly news magazines do, their peers do …” Sex and relationships are so basic to life, with such great potential for joy on the one hand and devastation on the other that we must address them head on, beginning with our youth. To more effectively equip nominals, the renewed Church called for 38 years ago in Pattaya needs to both address this issue and live up to the clear teachings of God’s Word. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, let us do so.
Those who call themselves ‘Christian’ must be worthy of the name.
Stanton L. Jones and Brenna B. Jones, How and When to Tell Your Kids about Sex: A Lifelong Approach to Shaping Your Child’s Sexual Character (2007).
Donald Joy, Celebrating the New Woman in the Family (Anderson, IN: Bristol Books, 1994).
Donald Joy, Sex, Strength and the Secrets of Becoming a Man: A Celebration of Sexuality, Responsibility and the Christian Young Man (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, a division of Gospel Light, 1990).
Kevin Leman and Kathy Flores Bell, A Chicken’s Guide to Talking Turkey with Your Kids about Sex (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).
Sex — with Attitude (Auckland, New Zealand: Parenting with Confidence, 1996). Available from Parents Inc., P.O. Box 37-708, Parnell, Auckland, New Zealand. www.attitude.org.nz
John Stott, Same-Sex Partnerships? A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI; Fleming H. Revell, 1998).
Edward T. Welch, Homosexuality: Speaking the Truth in Love (Phillipsburg, NJ: R&R Publishing, 2000).
Lyndon Bowring (ed.), Searching for Intimacy: Pornography, the Internet and the XXX factor (Hyderabad, Colorado Springs, London: Authentic, 2005).
Kristen A. Jenson and Gail Poyner, Good Pictures Bad Pictures: Porn-Proofing Today’s Young Kids (Richland, WA: Glen Cove Press, 2015).
Kristen A. Jenson, Good Pictures Bad Pictures Jr: A Simple Plan to Protect Young Minds (Richland, WA: Glen Cove Press, 2017).
Michael Leahy, Porn Nation: Conquering America’s #1 Addiction (Chicago: Northfield, 2008).
Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment (New York: Encounter, 2018)
- Web sites
http://loveandfidelity.org/ College students for sexual integrity, marriage, and family
https://www.medinstitute.org/ Scientific information for optimal sexual health
https://www.theparentingplace.com/ Tips for parents
https://protectyoungminds.org/ Building an internal filter against pornography
https://outpostministries.org/ Help for those attracted to the same sex
https://www.fosi.org/ Online safety information
https://itunes.apple.com/ca/app/sit-with-us/id1133202101?mt=8 An app to help young people avoid feeling like social outcasts
http://rethinkwords.com/ Helping teens rethink before sending a hurtful Internet post
 William Willimon, “Repent,” in Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (New York: Orbis, 2005 (6-10), p. 6.
 Willimon, p. 6.
 David Bennett, “The Gospel for Every Christian” https://www.lausanne.org/updates/gospel-every-christian David Bennett is Global Associate Director for Collaboration and Content of the Lausanne Movement.
 LOP 23 – Christian Witness to Nominal Christians Among Protestants (Pattaya: Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, June 1980).
 In June 1980 a mini-consultation on “Reaching Nominal Christians among Protestants” was held in Pattaya, Thailand. The purpose of the 2018 Consultation in Rome was to build on the foundation laid in this earlier Consultation and to encourage further and updated analysis related to the last 40 years and the trends that are foreseeable for the future of Christian mission. The Rome Consultation convened sociologists, theologians, and missiologists/practitioners from around the world.
 LOP 23
 Gina Dalfonzo, One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017).
 Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Persus, 2011).
 LOP 23
 James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014).
 Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), p. 12.
 Willimon, p. 9-10.
 LOP 23
 Dr. Barry Prizant tells of a young shadow teacher for a child with autism who could sense when the child was agitated and calm him with a glance. When asked what training he had had to enable him to do this, he said, “No training. I just pay attention.” Barry Prizant, Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015).
 Dalfonzo, p. 18. Dalfonzo’s book has three chapters on “Where do we go from here?” One is entitled “Rethinking Our Values” [what the church has been doing wrong] and another “What the Church Gets Right.”
 Christian Medical and Dental Associations web site, some years ago.