Happy New Year and welcome to 2014! We took a bit of a break over the Holidays and the freeze, but we’re back today with the final in the 3-part series by Jacob Heiss.
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 last in a three-part series (click Here for part one, and Here for part two) from Jacob: The Dignity of Sexual Identity from an Evangelical Perspective
This is the third post in a series exploring sexual identity from an evangelical perspective. Previously, we looked at how evangelicals often embrace the misguided view that homosexuality is merely a lifestyle choice. Next, we explored a more realistic alternative by considering ourselves as possessing a sexual identity that is one facet among many comprising our richly compounded state of being.
Last time, I faulted pastors like me for helping to perpetuate a predominantly negative, behavioralistically fixated understanding of sexuality. Someone might point out that evangelical leadership occasionally comes close to advancing a more positive view when we say that God created sex as a good thing, with references to Adam and Eve’s sexual union (Gen 2:23-24). But we follow this up with a discussion of how sin twisted everything while explaining God’s will for sexual activity within the bounds of heterosexual marriage or else chastity in singleness. So when it comes to present conditions, evangelical pastors still focus on sexuality in negative terms fixated superficially on behavior. The normative recommendation is, “Don’t have sex with anyone if you’re not married to them, but once you’re married, it’s cool.” Although there’s some wisdom in that recommendation, we need a much more robust, biblically rooted understanding of sexual identity and wholeness.
What changes when we think of ourselves as having a compounded identity with sexuality as one part? First, this helps us recover an immediate sense of the God-given dignity of the multiple parts of who we are. I may be an adopted son of God most of all, but I am a son of God with a sexual identity, a family identity, a vocational identity, etc. This makes our sexual desires connected to but not the sum total of who we are, and this helps us accept others as having sexual desires that are connected to their identity, too. It’s possible to accept a gay, straight, bi, poly, trans, queer, or asexual Christian from an explicitly evangelical perspective without sustaining a contradiction in terms—just as there is no contradiction in terms with Australian aboriginal Christians or Christians who love heavy metal.
This makes a Christian’s specifically Christian identity top dog in the pack versus lone wolf. My sexual identity may be trumped by my Christian identity, but it is still a legitimate part of me versus a “base” artifact I should overcome through “higher” faculties. This is the sensible gloss on the Lady Gaga truism that I am “born this way” sexually, for God could have created humanity without a sexual dimension at all. If God created us with a sexual part of ourselves, that part is inherently dignified—even if there are right and wrong ways to express it. Consequently, it’s possible for me to be misled by some part of myself without that part being inherently bad or “not me.” For the case of sexual identity, my desires may mislead me such that the trumping function of my identity as a follower of Christ kicks in to turn me back towards God’s ways.
Similarly, it is possible but not essential that some part of me may change over time. Thank God, my Christian identity has actually matured after a couple decades. I gained a sister several years ago; my career shifted from mathematics education to community organization with a church. With respect to sexual identity, it is possible for a gay Christian to experience a shift of orientation even if this phenomenon is rare, just as it is possible for a straight Christian to experience such a shift—I have friends who attest to both. But our hopes are not hung on the useless idea that a shift to heterosexuality from anywhere else is necessary for a whole and complete life. Why? Because sexual identity is more than mere behavior; it possesses a divine dignity exactly as it stands.
For too long, evangelical pastors have presented married heterosexuality as the vision of the good life. But Scripture affirms singleness and chastity as more than a waiting room foyer outside the grand ballroom of wedded bliss. It’s no accident that Messiah Jesus remains single according to scripture. From an end-game perspective, scripture tells us that we will no longer be married nor given in marriage in heaven—not that we will all be heterosexual, mated, and screwing like celestial rabbits (Matt. 22:30).
These are a few theological advantages to understanding ourselves as having compounded states of being with our sexual identity as one part among many enjoying God-given dignity. To conclude, here are some practical suggestions for evangelical Christians who want to concretely live out such an understanding:
- Actively acknowledge your sexuality as a real part of yourself regardless of marital status. Talk frankly with others about your desires; learn what’s true and worth celebrating about sex in general, about having sex in some contexts, and about refraining in others. There’s a difference between a sinful, lustful obsession with sexuality versus a righteous, factual acknowledgment of sexuality. And a twisted mistreatment of sexuality cannot be made right by blocking out everything sexual—that disrespects how God created us on purpose (Col. 2:22-23).
- Focus on expressing the sexual part of yourself optimally rather than trying to live a holy sexual life in negative terms. Think, “What’s the most life giving, God glorifying way for me to express my sexuality based on the full witness of scripture, and how can I help others?” According to 1 Cor. 10:31, it’s possible to do all things to the glory of God—including having or not having sex. Make decisions in positive, optimizing terms based on how you live right now and not just what you shouldn’t do or might get to do if conditions change.
- Reach out to people whose sexual orientation is different from yours to form meaningful, equitable relationships. Don’t treat folks from the LGBTQ community like objects of pity, critically damaged by a sinful world who just need a little Christian loving to set them straight. Build real friendships where you can know and be known, where you can give and receive love in appropriate vulnerability.
- Live and share the gospel! Try sharing the good news about Jesus as applied to the sexual part of your life. How does your relationship with God impact the way you understand your sexual identity? If Christ came to give us abundant life, what’s so fulfilling about how your sexual expression works as his follower? If you never encounter pointed discussion and conflict while doing this, you’re probably playing it too safe.
- Consider this heuristic: If you are developing relationships with others whose sexual expression differs from what the Bible dictates and both of you know the difference between your respective paths, you are probably on the right track. This is not a license to forego Christian community; however, evangelicals tend to clump together in ways that are counterproductive to the mission for which God sent us to the word—even when we do not stick to our ostensible sexual ethic. So get out there and kick some butt for the Lord.
1 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.
2 Sider, Ronald J. (Jan-Feb 2005). “The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience” Books and Culture [online]. Available at: http://www.booksandculture.