I remember the conversation as if it were yesterday. We were sitting together at a conference focused on the Biblical approach to same-sex relationships. And their story was nothing short of heartbreaking.
They were committed to the traditional Christian understanding of homosexual activity. As far as they were concerned it was Biblical and therefore non-negotiable. But they had had to come to terms with the fact that their only son was openly gay. They had never forgotten the devastating moment when he came home for the weekend and left a book on the table. It prompted a conversation that changed their lives for ever. And through it they reckoned they had come to understand the love of God in a far deeper way than they had ever done before.
They loved their son and nothing would ever change that. But they were equally convinced that his sexual behaviour was sinful and contrary to God's expressed will. And they found it difficult to square the circle. They did – by continuing to show their unconditional love to the best of their abilities but they never stopped short of informing him that they could never condone his lifestyle.
But there was another, equally sad side to their tale. He told them that lots of his gay friends came from Christian backgrounds but had given up on church, and particularly evangelical churches, because they gave the impression that they "hated gays".
I thought of their story when reading a recent story in Christian Today in which it was reported that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York urged all Primates of the Anglican Communion to show pastoral care and friendship to all, regardless of sexual orientation.
It saddened (but didn't surprise) me to see that this needed to be said. Unfortunately the church often needs to be reminded that Jesus was a friend of sinners and the subject of frequent criticism because of the way he mixed with those who would never have dared darken the doors of the synagogue. We betray our Lord when we ration our love. And if the couple I met that night were correct then we need to repent of our instinctive and often unrecognised homophobia.
But, and it's a very important but, we must not equate pastoral care with friendship. For if we truly want to care for people Biblically we must never stop short of spelling out the truth we find in Scripture. And that can mean challenging peoples' behaviour even to the point of telling them that their lifestyle offends God.
Take Psalm 23. David knew that God love him in spite of his sinful behaviour but he does go on to say that the perfect shepherd will guide his flock into paths of righteousness. In the same way Jesus won the heart of a disreputable Samaritan woman though his friendly approach but as their relationship developed He wasn't afraid to let her know that her family life needed to be put in order. The apostle Paul summed it up well when he reminded his young friend Timothy that: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness."
We can be judgmental of course and that would be wrong. We can hurl Biblical texts at someone and drive people away, and seem to have done so. God would have us go another way. He wants us to become friends with those who have messed up and in so doing earn their trust. For it is only when we have done that we will be able to offer true pastoral care: Biblical truth echoing from hearts of love.