A Realistic View of Sexual Identity Though Compounded States of Being

A Realistic View of Sexual Identity Though Compounded States of Being November 22, 2013

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.

Much love.

*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].

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9 responses to “A Realistic View of Sexual Identity Though Compounded States of Being”

  1. Another well written, well thought piece. Bravo to you Jacob. I’ve been consuming your words as quickly as you’ve been able to give them to us. Full disclosure, I am not a Christian. I am and always have been in love with Christ, but I have no opinion on whether or not he is or was the son of god, or whether he really even existed. I work to emulate his life as much as possible. His character draws me to itself day after day.

    At the moment I believe that the story of Christ has been told many times, by many cultures, and continues to be, even today. I do not believe it matters if we believe he is a deity, rather, what’s important is that we understand the message that’s being sent from the creator. That message, that divine sonnet is that we are and always have been loved, and that our creator is that perfect expression of love for us, and he/she/is is most revealed when we are showing and receiving love.

    At the age of 4 I knew that I was different from other boys. I felt it deeply in my bones. I didn’t know what the term gay was, but again, something about me was different then other boys. I enjoyed boy things, the lone ranger toys, transformers, Thundercats, but I also enjoyed playing with My Little Ponies, and my sister’s dolls. The experience of the feminine was important. I felt like one of the girls as much as I felt like one of the boys. As time marched on, and I grew older, my attraction to boys increased, much like a straight boy’s attraction to women would increase as they approached puberty. Because I grew up in such a sexually repressive Christian environment, my actions of obvious homosexuality were met with dire dire consequences.

    I grew up with the idea that same sex attraction is akin to hellfire. Hearing about gay people and AIDS, and that maybe it’s god’s punishment over and over and over, I was terrified. TERRIFIED. I stayed in the closet until I was about 30 years old. I was so scared of everything, the rejection, the loss of the love of God, it was too much to bear.

    And then, one day while in the midst of wrestling with the angel of my sexual identity I heard this voice, clear as crystal, and the sun shone right on my face as I walked down the street. This voice said to me “I love you for who you are, and you are beautiful to me.” That was it. I stopped trying to convince Christians that gay was okay. I had the peace I needed. I continued to get involved in theological debates when it concerned gay people, and most of the time, I could not convince anyone of anything, gay people are outside of the will of god, and that was that.

    I write the above to say that we are okay, we’re more then okay. We as homosexual people are loved by god, and our expression of love is as beautiful as a heterosexual expression. When I think about god and I think about our experience as humans, these spiritual beings in earthly vessels, logic tells me that god looks down at us and smiles when we’re showing love for one another, whether that’s as friends, straight committed lovers, married, or gay. It would seem idiotic that god would say to us, the moment we take that journey onward ‘I’m so so sorry my child, you loved the wrong gender’ and then reject us from that divine ever after.

  2. Your posts have given me a lot to think about and work through, for which I’m thankful. I have a growing list of questions, some of which get off topic and are peripherally related to what’s being discussed here. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a pediatric surgeon a few weeks ago. He’s an evangelical Christian, and throughout his career he has worked with many intersex individuals, whether with their parents when they are first born, or when they are older in their teens. Among other things, we discussed how evangelicals by and large have not learned how to love and respond well to those we don’t understand, particularly in relation to sexual identity. He brought up the really good point that we are all sexually broken, no matter how we identify ourselves. We all need the healing that Christ offers.

    I also think that our struggle with responding to compounded states of being (if I understood that part correctly) isn’t limited to conversations about sex and sexual identity. Working in apologetics I’ve seen that many Christians have not taken the time to wrestle through what their faith IS and what it MEANS. So when some form of opposition comes up, real or imagined, we become reactionary and panic. We’re afraid to actually wrestle with the issue because we’re afraid our faith might
    prove to be false after all. So rather than taking the time to listen to what others are saying and understand them, we spout out a few Bible verses, often
    proof-texting in the process, and think we’ve stood for Truth; or we simply ignore the topic. Maybe we’ve stood for Truth in the process, but that doesn’t mean we’ve done so in a way that causes God to smile rather than mourn our words or actions.

    With that said; I don’t want to assume I know the conclusion you will reach in this discussion, but I’m glad you’re having it. I’ll be listening.

    • Thanks so much for mentioning these points; given that we’re standing midstream, so to speak, I’ll respond quickly to just a couple points you shared and save something more substantive until after you’ve considered the next part of the series.

      First, I completely agree with the perspective of the pediatric surgeon you mentioned. Perhaps part of the problem with the evangelical Christian community is that we are pretty strongly heteronormative, which is to say that we expect that the healing Christ offers to a gay individual is to make that person straight–either miraculously, through a therapeutic vehicle, or some combination of the two. While I cannot deny that I know people who have attested to a shift of orientation from gay to straight as a result of either prayer or therapy or something along those lines, I know plenty of people who have never experienced this despite considerable effort, too. Moreover, I know people who have experienced the exact opposite as believers in Jesus, who have attested to something like a discovery of or the emergence of a homosexual orientation after having self-identified as heterosexual. I don’t know of any statistically solid, comprehensive research taking all such stories into consideration, but anecdotes like these cause me to suspect whether something like an evangelical, heteronormative script is trustworthy. If my suspicion is well founded, then our expectations of what God’s healing looks like for a gay individual needs revision; moreover, it’s very possible that those of us who are not gay need to spend some time reconsidering whether we have a proper understanding of our own sexual healing, too!

      On your second point about reactivity and mistaken attempts at standing for the capital “T” Truth potentially following from a lack of understanding the difference between what faith is and what it means, that’s a pretty interesting perspective. Christian scripture discusses faith both propositionally (e.g. Hebrews 11:1’s “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see”) as well as descriptively–as something we can sort of have (cf. Matt. 17:20), something we sort of do (cf. John 14:1), something that sort of guides how we do other things (cf. 2 Cor. 5:7), and so forth. Perhaps one way to look at this view of faith you’re raising for consideration is to trust in the power of that Truth we often feel the need to defend. In other words, if that Truth really is something issued from God, can we trust that this “word from God” will accomplish what it is supposed to? Can we have faith in the inherent power of the Truth to be its own advocate, or does the Truth “need” us to perpetually man the gates of its own citadel?

      • To tie your two points together, in order to discern if “the evangelical, heteronormative script is trustworthy” will require determining whether its based on capital “T” Truth or a misapplication of truth, which seems to be where you’re heading. I have my thoughts on that, but I’ll hold off for the time being.
        Back to your first point. Last week a new evangelical website was launched in the UK called Living Out. http://www.livingout.org It’s a website made by same-sex attracted (their term) Christians, sharing their stories and seeking to give the church community resources for responding and learning. They touch on some of the points you’ve raised so far. One of the men interviewed on the site was the lead pastor at the church I was part of while in England.
        And back to your second point. To answer your last three questions: yes, yes, and no. However, to run with your analogy, there is a difference in ‘needing’ to perpetually defend the citadel of Truth as if its walls will crumble if we slack in our vigilance, and defending the Truth for the purpose of helping people see they can find safety in the citadel when the enemy tells them its really only a sand castle. In other words, there’s a difference in defending for the purpose of saying, “I’m right and you’re wrong. Ha!” and, “Let me share with you the reasons for the confident hope I have, a hope you can have too (1 Pet. 3:15).”

  3. I enjoy Patheos in general (as does my pastor!), but Jacob’s article/post, so far, is a HUGE joy to read! Jacob’s article/post, so far (I say ‘so far’ as the third part is not up yet, so how can I comment upon the entire piece? I can’t, yet.), is enlightening & liberating for me (i.e. I would say it is the work of the Holy Spirit, which IS enlightenment & liberation!)! Let me just reveal a small bit of myself, for full disclosure’s sake: I am currently in therapy, attempting to heal my broken life & more fully love myself. My therapist comes from a more conservative theological background than myself (I am a liberal mainline protestant), yet she has, through her professionalism, created an affirming, healthy, sacred place for me to work & learn to love myself. Her sense of “calling”, I believe, is what empowers her to be such an excellent therapist, likewise the sense of “calling” my liberal pastor expresses, empower her to create, in my church, an equal place of affirmation, healing, and sacredness in my life! I do truly believe God has brought me these two fine servants, whatever their theological interpretations might be, and I am duly grateful!
    As well, Jacob’s article, reaffirms much of what I am learning/experiencing in both therapy & my church life, as well as life in general. I think when we reflect upon “calling” we should adhere to the highest commandments our Lord Jesus Christ has given us: To love God with all our self, and to love others as we ourselves are loved! Anything less than gracious, healing love fails the gospel! And if we love ourselves, then we must love our sexual being, an integral part of our humanity, even if we do not always love our behavior (those which cause damage), sexually or otherwise. It thus follows that our gender attractions, whether they be same sex, opposite sex, or both sexes, are part of our sexual beings, not defined by sexual actions, but by internal feelings & attitudes (i.e. again, self love); again we may not always love our behaviors in our attractions (i.e. those which damage us as well as others), but our attractions, in, and of, themselves are a positive!
    In summation, if we truly love ourselves, including our innate sexual being, then we must likewise love others, including THEIR innate sexual being. Being (and I stress “being” here) straight, gay/lesbian, bisexual is worth loving in ourselves, likewise loving in others. When we express our innate sexual beings in positive, affirming, healing, loving ways, we do, in part, proclaim the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ! I eagerly look forward to Jacob’s final article/post- God bless him richly for sharing!

    • I don’t think it’s possible for me to say without bias that I totally agree with you here, but I totally agree with you here, David! If I had more words to spend on this series, I don’t think I could have done much better than the practical upshot of this comment. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective. I’m excited for where your journey is headed given traveling partners as great as the ones you’ve mentioned and what sounds like a solid grasp on the vital truth that learning to love ourselves and others as God loves us are two sides of the same coin–central to what it means to live the good news.

  4. The problem with Christianity, in relation to the LGBTQ community, is not
    related to how a particular group of Christians treats others. It is
    also not a problem that can be shoved aside and blamed any particular
    corner the Christian population. The problem lies with basic claims
    that all Christians encourage a belief in and thus making all
    supporters of Christianity equally responsible.

    There are three particular fictional claims that Christianity makes; the
    existence of a supernatural afterlife that will be filled with an
    eternity of pleasure or torment, the existence of a supernatural
    entity called a “soul”, and the existence of sin which is simply
    that act of not doing what the god in the stories tells you to do.
    Supporting belief in those claims are the problem at hand. The Bible
    undoubtably labels homosexuality as a sin and in doing so claims that
    any homosexual who has any sexual behaviors deserves an eternity of

    “Deserves” may sound out of place but according
    to the stories Christianity supports the one who decides who deserves
    to go to Heaven or Hell is a just and perfect god. No one should make
    it socially acceptable to base real world decisions on the Bible just
    as they should not with any other fictional books like the Harry
    Potter series.

    • While I don’t agree with your conclusions, I do believe you’ve touched on an important point – Christianity looks to an authority outside of itself in making its claims. In essence, if you could ‘prove’ that the Bible is a work of fiction – the God it describes, the problem of sin and its solution, and most importantly the historical life, death, and resurrection of Jesus –
      then Christianity has no legs to stand on. It may be a bold claim to state that what is presented in the Bible is true. However, it’s also a bold claim to state that it’s a work of fiction. Both claims are ultimately statements of
      faith, yet claim to be faith based upon reality. So the question then becomes, is it more reasonable to believe the Bible is true and reliable, or fictitious? I personally believe that the evidence points to the former. However, since that’s not the point of this post, I’ll just say that if you want to discuss it further I’d be happy to start an email conversation: pennyofathought@gmail.com.

      As far as your understanding that sin is “the act of not doing what the god in the stories tells you to do” and that the Bible claims that “any homosexual who has any sexual behaviors deserves an eternity of torment,” do you think it’s possible you’ve misunderstood what the Bible means by sin? Jesus said that it isn’t the acts I do or don’t do that make me a sinner, rather it’s the condition of my heart before God. The acts I do or don’t do are simply the effects of that condition (Matt. 15:10-20).

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective. Since you’re disinterested in the discussion as I’ve framed it, namely, how evangelical Christians in particular can more effectively love folks from the LGBT community (as well as themselves), it’s unclear to me whether you’re actually interested in a dialog about your thesis either. Care to clear that up for me?

      To wit: Are you sharing your perspective as a way to disregard the entire discussion at hand without comment, or are you sharing your perspective as a sort of focusing tool that is itself also open to debate for the purpose of advancing the conversation, albeit more radically than the way I have so far? In the former case, there’s no discussion to be had since you are rejecting that on principle. In the latter case, there’s a lot of interesting ground to cover, but closer to a level of first principles– meaning it’s harder to pull off well but still pretty interesting.

      While I wait for your response on this, I’ll just point out for the sake of rhetorical precision that your middle paragraph is grossly overstated. Christians from a variety of theological positions will argue with you that the Bible does not “undoubtedly label homosexuality as a sin,” and Christians from what is commonly called a “welcoming and affirming” theological position vis-a-vis homosexuality will argue with you that the Bible does not “claim that any homosexual who has any sexual behaviors deserves an eternity of torment.” Are you aware of this? Your entire thesis is not predicated on fact.