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 first in a three-part series from Jacob: The Dignity of Sexual Identity from an Evangelical Perspective
I have spent most of my adult life as a member of an evangelical church in the United States. For the past four years, I have served as the associate pastor of First Free Church in Chicago, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church of America. I’m so grateful that God blessed me with the chance to share close relationships with numerous people of varying sexual orientations who spoke honestly about their lives for as long as I can remember. Still, I cannot recall a single, intentional, public engagement by evangelical church leadership on the topic of sexual identity as such until I personally engaged in conversation with others a month or so ago during National Coming Out Day.
I won’t rehearse the details since the territory will be pretty familiar to anyone who has observed the event in the past. My LGBT buddies shared personal vignettes about their respective journeys. A few friends both queer and straight came out for the first time to several of their friends. And while the majority of conversation was enlightening and civil, barbed discussion arose on occasion when people maintaining a mainstream evangelical sexual ethic joined the dialog. As a result, I was reminded of a subtle yet severely detrimental feature of mainstream, evangelical Christianity when it comes to the way we understand and talk about the phenomenon of sexual identity. Namely, we don’t want to think about its existence at all.
As a result, many evangelical Christians are woefully inept at loving gay folks well. Predictably, we don’t love ourselves much better—even when our sexual orientation and behavior lines up perfectly with the best-case scenario recommendation of our sexual ethic since we developed that ethic in the absence of a robust concept of sexual identity. Why do we do keep doing this and what’s at stake? What might change for the better if evangelical Christians took a solid crack at exploring sexual identity directly rather than avoiding the matter or reverting to clichés and subcritical, scriptural misapplications? Here’s the first of a series of posts on this topic and why it makes such a huge difference for our lives and those we have been guided by God to love.
Global society is gradually learning that sexual orientation is incredibly complex. After years of debate in the dark about whether people are born with or socialized into their sexual orientation, we have hard, scientific data showing us that we still don’t know for sure how the development of sexual identity occurs in general.* Thankfully, we do know with greater specificity where our blind spots are, and we have learned a bit about which explanations are more or less promising as we continue to seek the truth of the matter. At the same time, there is quite a bit of collateral damage to which we must attend because of our mistakes.
For example, the first time I tried to speak publicly as a leader of an evangelical church on the topic of sexual identity, the most strained points of discussion were rooted in the commonly held misbelief within evangelical Christian culture that homosexuality is simply a lifestyle choice. This is not the same as saying that everyone gay was probably born straight or maybe experienced a problematic childhood before embracing “the gay lifestyle”—that’s an even more misguided trope whose dominant position within evangelical Christianity is declining. Nevertheless, when most evangelical Christians I know say something like “homosexuality is a lifestyle,” what we are doing is invoking a euphemism or terminological placeholder for sex as an act that dodges the question of sexual identity in all of its irreducible complexity.
From a theological perspective, insisting that homosexuality is simply a lifestyle choice truncates sexual being, feelings, and expression to copulation. This treats internal states of affairs as categorically less noteworthy than behavior, i.e. “How you feel or who you think you are doesn’t matter so much provided we’re clear on what you do.” That enables us to suspend the idea that we are sexual beings any time that we are not engaged in sexually intimate activity—sexuality becomes something like a switch we flip on or off behavioristically rather than a persistent feature like spirituality or ethnicity or family belonging.
This misbelief that homosexuality is simply a lifestyle choice is what makes it possible for an erstwhile Christian to try to persuade someone who is gay that their sexual desires have nothing to do with who they truly are—or, in the case of somebody who is gay but not a follower of Christ, who they could become after receiving Jesus as Savior and Lord. In this regard, at least evangelical Christians are consistent, for we tend to believe that everybody’s sexual desires have nothing to do with who we are! Rather, we treat desire like a suspicious, appetitive feature of our embodiment that need not be acted upon and ought not be acted upon when it conflicts with God’s revealed will in scripture. Indeed, sexual desire whose actualization departs from God’s will should be denied through an exercise of self-discipline, guided and energized by God’s grace (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:13).
The problem with this line of thought is that there are bits of truth and error mixed in together. And a worst-case scenario extension of the view that sexuality boils down to behavioral choices alone makes it possible for evangelical Christians to advise anyone who is same-sex attracted (including themselves) that gay people can and should try to “stop being gay.” What we mean when we say this is that anyone experiencing desire for someone of the same gender should refrain from acting on that desire while seeking an alteration of their orientation through some combination of prayer and therapeutic intervention.
At this point, appeals to 1 Corinthians 6:11 are often made, e.g. “See, there were those in the early church who used to embrace the gay lifestyle before coming to Jesus.” Sometimes, 2 Corinthians 12 is thrown in for good measure, e.g. “See, even the apostle Paul had a ‘thorn in the flesh’ that tormented him despite his prayers, but God’s grace is sufficient.” Beyond this, evangelical Christians suffering under the theological weight of the misbelief that homosexuality is just a lifestyle have very little else to say when pressed. Dependence upon truisms like “we all have our cross to bear” or “God’s will is full of mystery” are the final defense for the incisive protest that it is not enough to tell our LGBTQ friends and loved ones that they should resist their sexual desires while trying to “pray the gay away.”
I wanted to begin this series with a deeper engagement on a more realistic, scripturally harmonious understanding of how sexuality works right off the bat. But until evangelical Christians have named our error of reducing sexual identity to behavior alone, we’re likely to perpetuate that mistake over and over despite the hurt it causes to everybody. Next time, we’ll take a look at some reasons why we’re so attracted to this specious outlook and how we can move beyond it to everyone’s benefit and God’s glory.
*Cf. Frankowski BL; American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Adolescence (June 2004). “Sexual orientation and adolescents.” Pediatrics 113 (6): 1827–32. Also Långström, Niklas; Qazi Rahman, Eva Carlström, Paul Lichtenstein. (7 June 2008). “Genetic and Environmental Effects on Same-sex Sexual Behaviour: A Population Study of Twins in Sweden.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 39 (1): 75–80.