Ministering to the Sexually Broken: An Interview with John Freeman
by John Freeman
Tabletalk: What is Harvest USA and why is its mission compelling to you?
John Freeman: Harvest USA began in 1983 as a ministry outreach of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Now an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit, we are also a Mission to North Americarecommended mercy ministry that is closely associated with the Presbyterian Church in America. Our staff has both teaching and ruling elders. We exist to offer biblical truth and mercy to individuals, families, youth, and churches affected by pornography, sexual addictions, and homosexuality. We educate and equip the local church to be better enabled to minister the gospel to those struggling with sexual brokenness and sin.
Our mission is compelling to me because issues of sex and sexuality, both in their God-ordained original use and in their fallen nature, are gospel issues. Therefore, they are gospel opportunities for the glory of Christ and of His church to be seen. Sex, as created by God, is meant as something good and holy, to be enjoyed in the confines of marriage between a man and woman. The Bible provides us with many illustrations of sex gone wrong. When it takes on a life of its own, apart from God, sex becomes very destructive. As humans, we are challenged with how to handle sex in the way God intended, yet live with the reality of its fallen nature. Most people have trouble living in this tension.
TT: How did you get involved in ministry to people with sexual addictions and those who struggle with sexual sin?
JF: One of my seminary professors, Harvie Conn, came into class one day and announced, “Today, we’re going to talk about a different kind of mission field. We’re going to talk about a contemporary unreached people group and a hidden people group.” He explained how the homosexual community of our country, as an unreached people group, was one of the fastestgrowing unreached groups in America. He believed this was due, in part, to the church’s hands-off, “what do they have to do with us?” mentality.
He said that a vast hidden people group were the believers in our churches who brought the baggage and scars of their sexual struggles into their Christian life. Because the church doesn’t normally offer observable help to such people, the vast majority of them remain silent about their problems and don’t ever learn how the gospel applies.
Shortly thereafter, I found out that Tenth Presbyterian was in the initial stages of developing a ministry along these lines and, subsequently, became a volunteer leader at Harvest USA. After raising my financial support, I became the organization’s first staff person.
TT: Why is sexual sin so destructive?
JF: Sex has the unique power, almost like nothing else, to either bless or to harm and exploit. There’s usually no in-between. When used to bless your spouse, it’s a beautiful picture of Christ’s relationship with His church. When it takes on a life of its own, used for one’s personal satisfaction to meet one’s own demands and outside the bounds God intended, it is debilitating and unruly. These struggles can also be quite unobservable and may stay hidden for a very long time (twenty, thirty, or forty years) in people’s lives. Therefore, they will corrode and erode the soul like no other sin struggle—robbing the person of their very spiritual life breath, resulting in an inability to love God or others well. They also can cause financial, emotional, and psychological damage.
TT: How does Jesus help those who struggle with the guilt of sexual sin?
JF: Jesus helps us, first, by assuring us that these are not new or unique struggles. Scripture says, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful and will not let you be tempted beyond your ability… . He will also provide the way of escape that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13). Those who struggle need to know that God knows our struggles and stands ready to fight with and for us as we also fight.
Second, Jesus, as our advocate and mediator in His priestly role, makes it possible for us to bring all our temptations, struggles and, especially, our failures, to Him boldly. “We do not have a high priest who does not sympathize with us, but one who, in every respect, has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then, with confidence, draw near the throne of grace that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15–16). Those who struggle need to know of God’s ever-ready heart to receive us as we look to him for strength, grace, and forgiveness through the finished work of His Son, Jesus.
TT: How can pastors best address sexual sin from the pulpit?
JF: Speak of it often in sermons. I don’t just mean here and there, once in a while. Be careful to make application about this, in many texts preached, as a chief place the human heart goes for relief and counterfeit worship. We need to address it in an inviting, full-of-grace way, offering hope to the downtrodden and those filled with shame, not just in a chastising way. Most people don’t have to be told they’re in trouble with all this. They do have to get repeated messages of the hope in the gospel for them.
TT: How should parents respond if they discover their child has been viewing pornography?
JF: Don’t freak out—even if you have to fake it. The initial reaction our kids get about anything as deeply shameful as illicit sex can leave lasting imprints and may inhibit future honesty. Parents today also need a healthy dose of the reality of these things in our kids’ lives. Children are exposed to sexual images of one type or another hundreds of times a day. Unfortunately, they are also viewing Internet porn on cell phones, Wiis, and Xboxes at alarming rates.
Let your child know you are glad that you have found out about this. Do some light investigative questions (versus interrogation) about when, where, and how often this happens in your child’s life. Let your child know that you want to and will take steps to help him or her better safeguard his or her heart. Also, pray for and with your child about what has happened now that they have been exposed to this. (The Harvest USA mini-book i-Snooping on Your Kid: Parenting in an Internet World is an excellent resource for parents.)
TT: What do you say to those who can’t imagine victory in their battle with pornography?
JF: Our people need to know that God never gives us a command about holiness that He doesn’t enable us to accomplish. Learning to obey and “struggle well” with battles of lust and the flesh is possible. Encourage them to walk in honesty, by helping create points of light throughout their week where they can ask for prayer and let others know about their heart struggles. Remind them that battles are fought one at a time, each time we are called to take up the fight, and that the normal living of the Christian life is the combination of God’s power and our activity.
TT: How should church leaders, as well as laypeople, approach those who struggle with homosexuality?
JF: We must approach and engage, especially the followers of Jesus who struggle with this, with boldness, sensitivity, and patience. We need to realize that we don’t need new or unique answers to this. This is not new. It is as old as Genesis. In one sense, this is no different than other sexual struggles of a heterosexual nature and should not be treated as something special. The same gospel is the remedy for all misuses of sex and sexuality.
While all sexual sin carries with it a deep sense of guilt and shame, those who struggle with same-sex attractions and with past or previous homosexual behavior are often among the most broken of sexual strugglers. There is often a deep spiritual stronghold over the heart. Not only has the evil one spoken many lies, but also internal isolation and self-abasing self-talk has been a constant friend. Many a same-sex-attracted struggler just wishes that they could just have “normal” sexual sin struggles. All this produces more shame and hopelessness.
TT: What are three practical ways that the church can care for the families of those struggling with sexual sin?
JF: First, our churches need to work hard at becoming permission-giving places which communicate the reality that “we can handle this here.” We can no longer afford to give the impression that we are fragile in this area. Leadership also needs to be perceived as safe to approach. The church must labor to make it known that they expect people to struggle with these problems and that they are ready and waiting to help. Second, have the leadership, both ordained and laypeople, get a little education about these problems.
Third, talk early about these issues with everyone—appropriately, of course. Use common avenues of educational channels to address this. The average age of exposure to pornography today is seven for boys and nine for girls. Twenty years ago, ten-year-olds didn’t have to decide whether they may be homosexual. Today, the culture often forces this question upon them. Many ten- to twelve-year-olds, wrestling with sexuality, now use the Internet to investigate this.
We need to use common avenues like membership classes to begin dialogue and discussion. Now is the time to begin using an hour discussing God’s intention for sex, including why marriage is meant to be between one man and one woman. This allows for biblical clarity and also lets people know that the leadership cares about these very important and critical heart issues.
John Freeman is president of Harvest USA, a ministry in Philadelphia that partners with and helps to equip the church in bringing the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to transform the lives of those affected by sexual sin. In addition to his ministry with Harvest USA, Freeman has guest-taught classes and seminars at Westminster Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary, and he has served as an adjunct faculty member at Cairn University and the Center of Urban Theological Studies in Philadelphia. He is author of The Gay Dilemma and Your Church and contributor to Reformed Means Missional: Following Jesus into the World.