The Difference Between Sexual Identity and Lifestyle Choice

The Difference Between Sexual Identity and Lifestyle Choice November 11, 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, rocks the free world at, 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.

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27 responses to “The Difference Between Sexual Identity and Lifestyle Choice”

    • That’s true. On a mainstream evangelical understanding of sexuality predicated on a one-to-one correspondence between behavior and identity, a celibate straight person might conclude that they possessed no sexual identity at all. On the approach I am recommending across this series, a celibate straight person would believe that their sexual identity finds its most fulfilling expression while they are nevertheless refraining from the activity of having sex.

      • And even if you have a solid sense of your own sexual identity, that mainstream evangelical understanding of sexuality can result in a celibate feeling invisible or neutered, if not downright dangerous (because confusing). I look forward to reading the rest of the series! I think this is a critical discussion – if the conservative church doesn’t even know what to do with straight celibates, how in the world does it expect to deal with non-straights who adopt the celibacy they promote for them?

        • You’re anticipating a pretty big part of the rest of the series already with your conclusions! Totally agree with where you’re heading here; to generalize, if the conservative church doesn’t know what to do with anybody’s sexuality in general, it won’t know what to do with LGBTQ folks’ sexuality in particular.

  1. What I think few in the church understand is that sexual identity, and sexual expression are at the very core of who people are. When you berate gay people into abstaining from romantic and sexual expression because of some ill-fated idea of archaic sexuality, you ask them to lock away what is essentially their only way of expressing and receiving love.

    It’s moronic and arrogant, as a straight person who has chosen the path of Christianity to then request that gay people abstain from sexual fulfillment because you believe it makes you and your god uncomfortable, a position that’s not even supported in the Bible and is dubious at the very best.

    Bravo for this article.

    • For the sake of full disclosure, it’s quite possible that my own personal decisions about my own form of sexual expression resembles what you’re calling ill-fated and archaic! Nevertheless, I agree with you that sexual identity and expression absolutely go to the core of who we are, and there’s no way that flippant judgment calls about something that central will get the job done well.

      • Great article, Jacob!
        Since you are discussing identity and allowing people to express themselves in a manner that’s (for as long as I have known) unacceptable, I wonder about other boundaries? What of the person who wants many spouses (it’s now illegal). What of the person who wants to marry their pet? Are “numbers” the reason something becomes socially acceptable?
        Don’t get me wrong, I have very good LGBT friends and enjoy their friendship and respect them greatly. In some ways, they are pioneers in this evangelical culture – the ones who will suffer in order that their choices will become the norm.

        Thanks for speaking out.

        • Thanks for your questions, Rick! I’ll unpack more of the foundation for my concept of sexual identity in the next two posts of this series, but I’ll clarify a couple points right here in the mean time–please let me know if this answers your questions. First, I do not argue in this series that everybody should automatically express their sexuality in whatever way they want. There are two extremes with respect to which I am trying to forge a third path: The first extreme makes my sexual identity the most important thing about me, the “trump holding” part of myself whose expression should never be challenged; this concretely means that I can and should act on any sexual impulse I wish. The second extreme treats my sexual identity as nonexistent with all sexual desires (wherever they come from) being governed by God’s directives; this concretely guides me to select sexual activity according to God’s guidelines at the expense of obliterating my sexual self–I don’t get to ask what I find desirable, I treat desire like some foreign thing that is not a part of the “real” or “spiritual” me, and I get obsessed with the question of what wrongs things I should not do versus what obligatory or permissible things I can do to most optimally flourish. So, I am NOT arguing that people should automatically express their sexuality however they want, contrary to what you’ve always found acceptable.

          Moving onward, there’s a difference between politics and ethics. So, my response to the cases you mention of other forms of sexual expression have to address both states of affairs for the religious climate I’m focusing on vis-a-vis evangelical Christianity as well as the political climate that interests me vis-a-vis American representative democracy. From that political perspective, I’d have to ask the question of whether it would likely be helpful or detrimental to the nation as a whole to legalize polyamorous marriage on the one hand and zoophilic marriage on the other hand. The first case has mainly negative implications in practice, which elevates the wisdom of restricting marriage to monogamy from a purely political, social contract focused angle (cf. The second case of zoophilic marriage has very little historical precedent but would likely be considered a critical deformation of how social contracts work in that a pet is basically incapable of forging any contract whatsoever.

          From an ethical perspective grounded explicitly in evangelical Christian doctrine, I don’t see any way to develop a compelling, positive argument for zoophilic marriage at all; so, the ethics and politics line up pretty neatly for the areas on which I’ve focused. Nevertheless, it would be more difficult than most Christians realize to produce a 100% knockdown argument against polyamorous marriage. Many of the texts we use to do that might not be strong enough to counterweight the examples of polygamy we see NOT interrogated in scripture and in some cases directly following from God’s activity–which suggest that there is a norm being advanced and not merely an historical report. For example, does Paul’s statement that each man should have sexual relations with his own wife and vice versa to avoid sexual immorality according to 1 Corinthians 7:2 overweigh God’s rebuke of David via the prophet Nathan in 2 Samuel 12:8 that “I [God] gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more”? Ironically, it is easier to produce a compelling argument against polyamorous marriage from a purely political perspective than it is to produce a compelling argument against it from a purely ethical perspective–again, with caveat of our restriction to democratic America and evangelical Christianity.

          With regard to your final question about whether ideas become socially acceptable merely through their ubiquity, I would say that there is probably some truth to that. On the other hand, the relative popularity of an idea tells us very little about whether that idea is trustworthy, grounded in reality, and worth championing. We should test unpopular ideas for being potentially useful and popular ideas for being potentially misleading.

        • I believe that talking about LGBT and the marriage of one to one’s pet is a non starter. That kind of ridiculousness that I hear from Christians ad nauseum is what derails and ultimately shuts down further conversation.

          We are discussing same sex attraction and expression by consenting adults, not marrying one’s pet, polygamy or the like. That’s a separate conversation.

          • I believe the title of the article is
            “The Difference Between Sexual Identity and Lifestyle Choice”

            Why would this shutdown further conversation?
            But I will bow out of the conversation as I see I’m offending you.

            • You’re not offending me at all. I just thought it important to make note that historically, I’ve witnessed christians bring up marrying your pet during a discussion pertaining to either homosexuality or marriage equality.

              • Well, neither you or Jacob may be offended but I am.

                I think I’m even more offended by the feigned surprise that bringing zoophilia into the mix just might derail the conversation.

            • Are you kidding me?!
              You have “respect” for your LGBT “friends” while associating beastiality, polygamy, “or the like”? What a load of crap.
              I am gay, and in spite of the “Christian” church & folks who sound like you, I love God. I did not allow homophobic driven doctrines, spiritual abuse, physiological abuse, & far worse to turn away from God. The God I know, who touched my heart when I was a very young child-never ever
              put upon my heart any conviction/conscience of wrong doing for being gay-EVER. Rather, I am spiritually challenged to forgive the damage done(on so many levels), by the church, and am in need of God given patience to wait for folks like you & the church, to spiritually evolve-to not give God a bad name.
              Is your heart open to God or doctrines? That’s really not a question.
              How about posting under your name?

  2. Good discussion Jacob. It is more comfortable and less risky to speak of these issues in a sanitized environment of theories and psychoanalytical terms. Taking aim at either large group of thought or belief is dangerous at best and at its worst falls directly in the will of our mortal enemy who seeks to divide, create distrust, stir up anger through ignorance and ultimately disgraces God.

    The loftier goal for me is to foster unconditional love that God showed me through Jesus Christ. To pass on to those who He brings into my life the undeserved grace he lavishes on me daily. I remember I AM THE CHURCH. I am accountable for how I treat others. It is not my job to be the Holy Spirit, to point out the specks in other’s eyes without first earning the privelegde of gaining trust and understanding through relationship and making sure I perform self-examination and moral inventory myself (taking the logs out my own eyes).

    Keep up the discussion. Thanks for your courage.

    • Thanks for sharing this perspective, Randy! I do feel that there is a place for articulating normative statements in a life giving way–saying what things should and should not be believed, done, etc. in a context of compassion for the person with whom one is speaking (and oneself). On the other hand, I agree with you that pointing out specks in anybody’s eyes usually does not work, and the task of proper self-examination is tough and frequently neglected.

      Sometimes I ask people who feel strongly compelled to communicate a “hard truth” of which they are persuaded to consider what conditions they would need to fulfill in order to make sure that what they said was not just clearly understood but also received in love by the person with whom they want to talk. That might be one way to help us work on that goal of gaining trust and understanding in order to share those difficult yet important conversation on divisive topics close to our hearts.

  3. One thing that I feel is overlooked when discussing sexual ethics in regard to gay Christians is that it doesnt always necessarily have anything to do with actual sex. There is so much more at play here than “burning lustful urges”. We are talking about growing old with someone, holding them at night, watching cheesy movies and kissing them goodbye in the morning. Celibacy isnt just about not having sex, its about giving up any chance of a one-on-one emotional connection with someone who you love. I know that’s not necessarily the point of your post but I dont often see it mentioned when discussing gay folks. Often we see celibate straight folks use their own “wait until marriage” ethic to compare themselves to gay celibate folks and I dont see that connection as valid in most cases. Just having HOPE that you may one day find someone is better than knowing you just arent allowed to participate in the one thing that permeates our entire world culture. Find someone, fall in love, grow old together. Its in every book, movie, poem, song. It bothers me that people are so flippant about the whole thing when most would not be able to handle the burden themselves. Then when confronted with it, its like their voice trails off before awkwardly quoting some verse about the healing power of God and backing away slowly. Thank you (and the Marin Foundation) for having these conversations. They mean the world to people like me.

    • The companionship point you’re raising is utterly vital. It’s one of the first and main points my gay Christian friends bring up when the topic of same-sex marriage arises, but it’s often overlooked by my straight friends regardless of their theological persuasion. Although I had not planned on focusing on this point in this series, it’s on the docket for a future. Thank you for sharing your perspective!

  4. Dr Cynthia Chappell’s videos on the Biology of Sexual Orientation & on the Science of Sexual Orientation have helped me understand this topic (Houston PFLAG website & Youtube). But I no longer see sexual orientation as a choice no more than I as a right handed person would be good at writing with my left hand. And it is easy to state an opinion without real life experience, but as a straight Christian having people I love come out as LGBT, I am learning that I was in error in my old views without that experience & research into it to understand.

    • It takes some real maturity not only to recognize a blind spot but to take action to gain greater clarity. Sexuality is complex, and it’s really cool that you are endeavoring to understand it in a way that is both responsive to the people in your life, faithful to your doctrinal convictions, and informed by current research on the matter.

    • Thanks for asking, Sarah! You’d you have to check with The Marin Foundation folks about this. I gave them several parts all in one shot, but I believe the plan is to release each part every few weeks so there’s space for discussion like this. If you want the precise schedule when each part will be posted, I believe the best way to go would be to email or call their offices at 773-572-5983.

  5. I would be curious Jacob, your thoughts about you even having an opinion about a matter that you don’t and will never struggle with or struggle through? I’m asking this as a way of stepping out of the nucleus of this discussion. Do you feel that as you try and understand this issue, it’s really yours to understand?

    Maybe I’m asking this question. Why are you so passionate? Why do you care about gay people?

    • Thanks for the question(s). I’ll take a shot at each iteration of what you asked as well as I understand it:

      Q1. Do you feel that as you try to understand this issue, it’s really yours to understand?
      A1. What I’m ultimately trying to understand is a comprehensive sexual ethic that works for everybody based on principles that are either central to Christianity or harmonize with that. Yes, that is my issue to understand for a few reasons: First, it obviously affects me; my sexual ethic makes a difference for how I live. Second, it affects people I care about; my beliefs, actions, and discussion about sex and sexuality make a difference for people that I love. Third, it affects people who have asked me to teach and to lead them in my own congregation; I am not afforded the luxury of agnosticism vis-a-vis sexual ethics even if that did “work” for me and the people I care about on a very personal, individual level. Fourth, it affects people I don’t know at all who are nevertheless within my sphere of influence–either because of the way I act, the way people who listen to me act, or how both of those things reverberate through the rest of humanity over time. This is one the reasons why I’ve explicitly identified my own location in this discussion, i.e. owning my particularly even as I try to develop something that works at a more universal level–including but in no way limited to a person belonging to any single locus in that field of bi, pan, a-, poly, trans, straight, cis, queer, etc.

      Q2. Why are you so passionate?
      A2. Wow, I don’t think I’m perfectly reflective on why I’m so passionate! The first thing that comes to my mind is that sex and sexuality is a big part of life that is still not very well understood, and I am interested in gaining insight into things like that because that’s just the way I am. (It’s the same reason I’m passionate about a variety of other subjects beyond the topic of sexuality.) Second, the mistakes people have made in the realm of sex and sexuality–particularly honest, Bible believing, evangelical, Christian people–have been incredibly costly for me personally, for people close to me whom I love, and for countless other people I will never meet in this life. I want to light candles rather than curse darkness or passively accept status quo. Third, there are for-the-vastly-better, life-changing benefits to understanding and promoting a more realistic, doable, coherent, theologically robust sexual ethic. It’s not just that I feel drawn to healing wounds alone, like a hyper-actively imbalanced, reincarnated Henri Nouwen. I see an outstanding opportunity to make a positive difference and am attracted to taking a shot at that.

      Q3. Why do you care about gay people?
      A3. I care about people in general, bro/sis. With respect to gay people in particular, some of my oldest friends are gay, some of my own family members are gay, some of my most respected work associates are gay, some of the people I most admire from afar are gay. Now, it’s a fact that gay folks have been marginalized in my context for a long time; this makes my caring about gay people more assertively focused than might be the case for some other category of people who have historically enjoyed a high degree of tranquility, acceptance, power, and understanding. It’s probably true that I care about gay people because Jesus has made me less of a self-absorbed person over time, but my present, lived experience of why I care about gay people right now is described above.

      Is this addressing what you’re asking here?