Jacob Heiss is a Jewish follower of Jesus presently serving as the associate pastor for adult discipleship, outreach, and connections ministries with First Free Church in Chicago. He received his B.A. from Northeastern Illinois University and M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Jacob occasionally blogs at jacobheiss.com, rocks the free world at justjacob.com, and is easy to find on Facebook, Twitter, and stuff like that.
Today’s post is the second in a three-part series from Jacob: The Dignity of Sexual Identity from an Evangelical Perspective (see part one here)
This is the second post in a series exploring sexual identity from an evangelical perspective. Last time, we looked at some negative ramifications of the popular misbelief within evangelical culture that homosexuality is merely a lifestyle choice versus a persistent state of being like one’s ethnic background or family belonging. Before looking at better alternatives to this unrealistic view, let’s consider some reasons why evangelicals are prone to embracing such a mistaken view, beginning with how we process scripture.
I’ll never forget the first time I read straight through the entire Bible with a commentary. I expected boring stuff in the first half of the Hebrew scriptures; even though I come from a Jewish family, there aren’t too many Jews psyched to comb through genealogies and the holiness code. But I was surprised to encounter the depth of emotion and intentionality woven throughout those seemingly dry portions of scripture—and that was just the beginning. I expected to find consolation in the Psalms and calls to repentance in the prophets. I didn’t expect to encounter honest reflection on existential crisis in Ecclesiastes and a no-holds-barred inquiry on whether God is just in Job. But what really caught me off guard was the explicit, artistic, passionate depiction of two people having sex in Song of Songs.
The only time I ever heard about that book of the Bible from evangelical leadership was as a metaphor for God’s love of humanity with a modest excerpt reserved for weddings. It was all “his banner over me is love” (Song of Songs 2:4) and not:
Wife: “Take me away with you—let us hurry! Let the king bring me into his chambers.” (1:4)
Husband: “Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit. I said, ‘I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit.’” (7:8)
Wife: “Awake, north wind, and come, south wind! Blow on my garden, that its fragrance may spread everywhere. Let my beloved come into his garden and taste its choice fruits.” (4:16)
I’ll let the reader follow up the husband’s response to his wife’s invitation in chapter 5, but these people go through all the stages of courtship to foreplay to outright sex before you’re halfway through the book. Plus, they are encouraged to do so by everyone who knows them in the text.
Evangelicals struggle dealing with sex as directly and positively as the Bible. We’re so focused on drawing firm lines around what we should not do that we spend almost no time on who we are and how we can experience sexual fulfillment. This dehumanizes us and depersonalizes sex. As an illustration, I continue to meet evangelical couples midway through the process of courtship who are uncomfortable with the idea of other people thinking of them having sex on their wedding day. Since we’re uncomfortable with straight talk about sex as a normal, positive, biblically attested part of life, it makes sense that we resist the idea of possessing a sexual identity.
In addition, evangelicals often bristle at the thought of the LGBTQ community advocating for the idea of sexual identity by arguing that a gay person’s homosexuality is an integral part of who they are. Evangelical Christians may feel compelled to propagate an oppositional script with the curious result of a confusion in terms over powder keg phrases like, “being gay is a sin.” The average evangelical Christian may agree with this statement on the understanding that they are talking about sexual behavior. But the average member of the LGBTQ community disagrees with this statement more fundamentally on the understanding that they are talking about a state of being, an experienced event of persistent attraction that is no more chosen than one’s parents or nationality.
To move beyond this, evangelical Christians (and, I suppose, LGBTQ folks) may do well to consider that all of us are comprised of something like compounded states of being. A Christian owes her ultimate allegiance to God as a follower of Christ; she recognizes her ultimate identity as one created by God and subsequently adopted, redeemed, and recreated anew as a result of Jesus’s ministry. This state of being as “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) should trump anything else making a claim on the life of the Christian. And there are times that followers of Messiah must deny impulse from other parts of who they are—they must love Christ more than country, biological family, career achievement, or their affection for twinkies and fast cars. But this does not mean that every other part of a Christian’s existence is unimportant or that our identity as newly created followers of Christ comes at the expense of every other state of being.
There are such things as Christian third cousins once removed, Christian dog walkers, and Christian lovers of craft beer. Christians are not only those called out of the world and reconciled to God but also those sent back to the world to serve it–on purpose, as a necessary part of who we are in our richly compounded identity. This is one reason why just about everybody likes Christians who are “normal” rather than “super-Christian.” In this case, “normal” doesn’t mean “statistically typical” but “someone to whom I can relate on a daily level.” This occurs when Christians balance their various states of being well enough to live in the world without being controlled by anything opposed to Christ such that they are not “of the world.” That balance is why the “normal” Christian is an effective ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20).
Unfortunately, people struggle with this concept of compounded states of being in general. Part of the challenge is purely ideological; it’s difficult to think of oneself as being a few different things at once. Beyond this, Christians are often uncomfortable thinking of themselves as possessing a sexual identity in particular that is not at logger heads with their identity as a child of God. Not only are we uncomfortable talking directly about sex at all, we struggle with thinking about sex positively. We spend most of our time talking about sexual desire as a threat to be controlled versus a gift to be celebrated or (even more mundanely) as a simple fact of life.
And evangelical Christian leaders have a bad habit of perpetuating this very issue by focusing our teaching about sex on all the things one should not do. Perhaps from a desire to counterbalance our wider culture’s sexual fixation and flippancy, Christians pastors and their flocks are woefully uptight about sex and sexual identity—even though the actual, sexual behavior of evangelical Christians hardly differs at all from that of our wider culture* and even though our Bible teaches us of a better way still. If we want to love LGBTQ folks better, the first step is coming to more realistic terms with our sexual identity.
*Sider, Ronald J. (Jan-Feb 2005). “The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience” Books and Culture [online]. Available at: http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2005/janfeb/3.8.html [Accessed: 15 Oct 2013].