Why Sexual Identity is Not an Idol

As Christians, the center of our faith is in the atonement—the work of Christ on the cross and his resurrection. The Incarnation brings all into his fold—redeeming the brokenness of both individuals and institutions. Many of us at Gordon think of our faith in the narrative of Creation—Fall—Redemption. Christ comes into the world not to whisk us away from the world into a safe-haven, but is actively reconciling the entirety of creation to himself—which includes individuals like you and me. Day-by-day we are transformed into the true selves Christ intended us to be—our hearts, once inverted in self-interest, are being turned outward to active engagement with all of life.

This on-going process of transformation is what “identity in Christ” looks like. Christians often cite Galatians 3:28 when referring to this Kingdom Identity: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The message of this verse should be comforting: Christ’s love for us is non-partial and given equally. It doesn’t privilege one people group over another, in fact it disrupted the expectations of the current time (and hopefully does so today!) It elevates the downtrodden, and calls for a dismantlement of oppressive barriers that prevent an understanding of Christ’s love. (For example, how often did Christ embarrass the Pharisees for the prominent role women played in his ministry?) Christ didn’t love by ignoring the marginalized status of women or Samaritans, rather he recognized that oppression and challenged it. That’s not to say that Christ didn’t desire deep, transformative change in the lives of those he encountered, but he recognized their differences and responded accordingly. He challenged, and still challenges, the status-quo. Those who find identity in Christ unite as his body, finding a common unity in God’s love (especially when it can’t be found in society.) The body of Christ is simultaneously unified and diverse – Christianity is multi-racial, multi-cultural, and multi-lingual. Identity in Christ is about inner change and transformation, but it doesn’t ignore or attempt to erase differences.

Too often though, Christians cite Galatians 3:28 when expressing resistance to racial or sexual identity language, because they make an assumption that these interfere with identity in Christ. Discussions on race and sexuality are naturally controversial because they are inherently personal—they bring up people’s lived experiences and issues that are still un-reconciled. At Gordon for example, there are consistent spaces for everyone to discuss and ask questions about race thanks to ALANA. African-American and other non-white students often share common experiences—such as not feeling mainstream or normal on a mostly white campus, miscommunications, cultural differences, etc. Sometimes the discussions will become broader to engage with race in the larger United States. These discussions inevitably encounter the sobering realities of racial profiling, unfair treatment under the law, and housing inequality. (Yes, these are realities in America today).

These things are not experienced only by a few individuals, but are common experiences that constitute one’s understanding of themselves as a minority, or racial identity. To be non-white is to be “other.” Being black is an embodied reality with challenges most white people simply won’t have to worry about or consider. Negative experiences aren’t the only things that constitute identity, but also rich history, culture, music—these need to be recognized as well. Putting a name to inherent, embodied realities is all that “identity” means.

When these conversations take place, Christians representing the majority can freak out, even when the term “racial identity” isn’t used. There’s a fear that talking about black identity means that it’s somehow taking the place of Kingdom Identity. The refrain goes something like this: “Shouldn’t we instead focus on how we’re all just human beings made in the image of God? These injustices can’t represent a system, they must be between individuals. We should talk about what unifies us rather than divides us.”

 Many Christians believe we can only have one identity, and everything else is an idol. They also make the same claim when others bring up sexual identity and LGBT experience.

Dr. Jenell Paris is an anthropologist at Messiah College, and author of the book “The End of Sexual Identity.” She too believes that sexual identity (both heterosexuality and homosexuality) are “idols,” because they’re unhelpful constructs that unnecessarily divide people and enable discrimination and moral superiority. She mentions that the church, rather than creating new culture for understanding sexuality, imposes a sweeping moral condemnation of “homosexuality,” while single-handedly privileging “heterosexuality” as the ideal—despite its many flaws and faults. In fact, she herself announced to her class that she was renouncing the label of “heterosexual.”

“I don’t want to get life, secure my moral standing, or gird my marriage with a social identity that privileges some and maligns others on the basis of inner desires and feelings” (pg. 43).         

Paris argues that as long as sexual identity categories exist, they “will perpetuate inequality and hierarchy” (80). Instead, Paris wants to dismantle sexual identity (both homosexual and heterosexual) in favor of a universal “beloved” category—human beings created in the image of God. She uses an illustration of “unpacking the groceries,” where she takes “condiments” (representing the different elements of human sexuality, like relationships, desire, behavior, memories etc.) out of a “grocery bag” (human person) so that Christians can individually discern the healthy and unhealthy aspects of their own sexuality. She writes that this discerning exercise for some, “…may lift them from moral degradation or even dehumanization toward equality; for others, it may chasten their sense of sexual moral superiority.”(p. 80)

Paris argues that because we have sexual identity categories, moral superiority exists in the church and broader culture. For example, a so-called heterosexual is often seen as having “godly” sexuality and a homosexual is seen as detestable  She argues that it’s impossible to judge someone’s sexuality by looking at whether one is homosexual or heterosexual, rather the church should focus more on the specific elements of human sexuality (relationships, desire, behavior, memories, etc.) so that we can discern healthy and unhealthy aspects of our own sexualities together in community.  Then the bags of “heterosexual” and “homosexual” won’t be necessary, and we’ll end up loving people better because the labels won’t exist.

Sounds peachy, doesn’t it? Why can’t we all just be human beings and stop dealing with this post-modern “sexual identity” BS?

That’s kind of where I was too after reading the book last year. At this point, I’d strongly urge you to click on this link, and scroll down to read a review of “The End of Sexual Identity.” written by a celibate gay woman named Karen. She helped me so much, and articulated the central oversight of what’s going on here:


Now don’t get me wrong, I appreciated Dr. Paris’ book and would recommend it overall. She does well to eliminate the overly broad homosexual/heterosexual binary. It’s outdated 19th century language, and way too general. Today, calling a gay person a “homosexual” would be like calling a black person a “negro.” I also appreciate that she strives to end the marginalization that many gay people experience in the church, but I take issue with her approach—which is ultimately “love is colorblind.”

Colorblindness asserts that difference shouldn’t be acknowledged. People marginalize and treat others unfairly because they see differences, so we should attempt to see each other as human beings instead of black or white, male or female, gay or straight. We can all get along if we see each other’s common humanity, but we need to look past these distracting “identities.” To love and to do justice then, we have to see how we’re all similar. Karen points out the problems with colorblindness:

 “If one has to pretend not to see a person’s black skin in order to love her, then how is that love? Rather true love sees a person’s skin color and loves him with that skin color. Furthermore, pretending a person is not black does nothing to eliminate the very real embodied existence of people. This is true for gender as well. We can pretend that there is not a rigid category of “female”, but even without societal prejudice, a woman’s experience of pain every month because of menstruation or the experience of childbirth are fundamentally different than the embodied reality of males.”

Colorblindness isn’t just used when encountering realities of race or gender, but also sexuality.

Regardless of how much we try and disassociate ourselves from labels like gay or straight, we intuitively know that there are “people-attracted-to-the-opposite-sex” and “people-attracted-to-the-same-sex.”  There always have been, and whether we use labels or not doesn’t change that reality. It doesn’t change my reality, or yours. The exercise of forgoing labels is counter-productive.

 I would argue that we visibly display our “sexual identity”—whether we’re aware of it or not. Even Dr. Paris said it was a bit of an oxymoron when she renounced being “straight”—because she’s happily married to a man and is a mother. These are visible markers that identify her as “straight” in society. People don’t think about being “straight” because as Karen puts it, “It’s written into the over-arching social fabric.” Being straight is accepted to the point where it’s taken for granted, while being LGBT is not (this is called heteronormativity). My friend Juwan Campbell writes more about straight identity formation here: http://studentinqueery.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/straight-people-come-out-too/

For a friend of mine, there are also visible markers that display his gay identity—which we might call orientation. Orientation means what it sounds like. He experiences orientation to men; he’s not “attracted” to men in some crude sexual sense, but experiences emotional, romantic attraction—everything that a straight man might feel when falling in love with a woman. The difference is that talking about his orientation in certain environments is heavily stigmatized, and I think that’s because Christians misinterpret what sexual identity really is.

Sexual identity does not exclusively refer to sex acts, but encompasses a whole range of inherent experiences—including the emotional, romantic, hopes, etc. There’s more to sexuality than “two bodies rubbing together,” there’s a sexual dynamic between any two people. It’s a component of human life that is present (and even obvious) in basic social interactions. My friend’s attraction to men has implications for how he interacts platonically with women and other men. There’s more potential for friendships with women for example. Unlike Fr. Mario’s claim last semester during Sexuality Week, sexual identity is not a narrow focus on genitalia or sexual arousal. Unfortunately, Christians often buy into this distortion.

Regardless of how much my friend tries to keep it under-wraps, his sexual identity is displayed in every day interactions. A hell of a lot is conveyed in my friend’s silence or hesitation when he is asked, “Which girls are you interested in at Gordon?” He has to negotiate this awkward conversation frequently. Even if he doesn’t disclose his sexuality, his vague response communicates a difference that people pick up on. People are puzzled that they can’t elicit the “proper response” from him—that he feels uncomfortable in this situation. In her review of Paris’ book, Karen describes how she stood out as a gay woman because she couldn’t take part in other basic interactions. She wasn’t dating anyone, she wasn’t married, and she couldn’t “properly” engage in discussions on love and relationship—for fear of the consequences. She didn’t have to be holding hands with a significant other for people to guess something was “off” about her.

These are the same interactions my friend experiences. He can’t escape or somehow disregard them (That is, without lying.) In these ways, gay people’s sexual identity is visible as well—it’s not something that can be ignored or tossed aside.

Dr. Paris surprisingly doesn’t explain why LGBT people need sexual identity, she seems to assume that people can only have one identity—that of the Kingdom. However, all of us bear different identities because we are human beings and experience reality differently—and to ignore those identities as Christians is dishonest. Undoubtedly our primary identity is found in the work of Christ and his call on our lives. Yes, I’m a human being created in the image of God but I’m also male, white, American, etc. All these mark embodied realities and profoundly shape my life experiences. Kingdom identity moves in and throughout these identities, but it doesn’t pretend that they don’t exist.

Many Christians say that they experience “same-sex attraction” rather than identifying as gay. This is understandable on one hand because identifying as gay or lesbian carries enormous baggage. One of my friends said once, “I don’t tell people I’m a lesbian, because the word comes across so harshly.” People readily impose their definitions of what gay or lesbian means onto another’s experience. People assume that being “gay” means a present state of sexual activity, past sexual encounters, hook-up culture, specific sex acts, or an “anti-family” political agenda—or a combination of all those things. Therefore in order to find acceptance within some congregations, some Christians will forgo identifying as gay—because they believe that sexual identity is an idol and means something negative.

Being gay or lesbian doesn’t mean anything else than experiencing a fixed attraction/orientation to the same-sex. Given this definition, Christians who are both traditional and progressive on this issue can claim gay identity. Karen herself is a celibate gay woman, but found freedom in putting a name to her experience, because that’s all that sexual identity is. So why is there such aversion to talking about LGBT identity?

The reason sexual identity is so important for LGBT people is that they’re tired of pretending they’re like everyone else. Instead of pretending that their attraction to the same-sex is some kind of “phase,” or doesn’t affect their lives on a daily basis, they can be honest about their orientation. (Whether they believe Scripture condones same-sex relationships or not is a different question.) In addition to the freedom Karen found, she mentions it was critically important to label her experiences so that she could understand them. Her orientation and its social implications were not something she chose. She can’t pray it away, or treat it like a mental illness. As a former member of the ex-gay movement, she recounts the expectation for ex-gays to say that they were no longer gay, even if they still experienced attraction to the same sex. This prevented them from being fully honest with themselves, and had negative consequences for their relationships down the road. This was one of the reasons that Exodus International, a prominent ex-gay group, decided to close.

Ron Belgau, another celibate gay Christian, details the problems of assuming all gay people can change their orientation in his piece, “Honesty about Orientation Change.” http://spiritualfriendship.org/2014/02/01/honesty-about-orientation-change/

This isn’t to invalidate the beautiful relationships between men and women in which one of the partners experiences a continued attraction to the same-sex, or maybe had that experience and no longer does. However, given the history of Exodus and other ex-gay groups, marriage to the opposite-sex or orientation change demand careful scrutiny, and shouldn’t be held as the ideal standards for Christians with an orientation to the same-sex.

All that to say, the central question of this issue should no longer be “Is LGBT identity legitimate?” or “Can’t people just change so it’ll be easier to love them?”  

If Love is what animates all of Kingdom Identity, then how do we love our gay or lesbian neighbors— our sons and daughters, our roommates, our friends, our students? If Kingdom Identity demands active engagement with all of life, then Christians need to more fully explore the subject of sexuality; developing theologies of the body and of sexual orientation—especially if they find themselves removed from the experienced realities of LGBT people. Flesh out what “identity in Christ” means for the LGBT community, rather than using it as a buffer between yourself and the complexities of this issue. Let’s get past the culture wars. What does Kingdom identity mean for gay people who desire relationship and want to be in committed marriages? What does that mean for gay people choosing to be celibate? This requires us to ask questions (especially dumb ones), to search for answers (while simultaneously being content without all-the-answers), and to be in a posture of listening.

Karen’s final quote in her review is incredibly powerful and challenging:

“Prejudice does not exist because we use terms like ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’. Prejudice is evoked the moment most conservative Christians see a man hold his male partner’s hand and revulsion is the automatic response. Instead of pretending the categories don’t exist, we need to be Christians who don’t have to be blind in order to love. We need to be Christians who have our eyes wide open and are filled with compassion and understanding when we see, actually see, the human being who stands before us—however different she is.” Karen 

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How Can We Transform the Conversation?

During Thanksgiving dinner, some of my family asked me what happened during Thursday night’s talk entitled Gays and Christians: Transforming the Conversation?

The intent of the talk was a substantial yet respectful dialogue between two friends with different perspectives on homosexuality. Justin Lee, the founder of the Gay Christian network, is a gay-identifying evangelical who believes that Scripture is not conclusive on the issue, and Christians with same-sex attraction can find companionship in monogamous relationship and marriage. Ron Belgau, a gay-identifying celibate, believes gay relationships are not harmonious with Scripture, and Christians with same-sex attraction should pursue the option of celibacy. Justin and Ron routinely tour colleges not as debaters, but presenters of how Christians committed to Scripture can respectfully agree and disagree over the contentious topic of sexual ethics.  Most evangelicals simply don’t know how to talk about this issue. Both Justin and Ron recognize the difficulty of discussing homosexuality within the church, but also how gay Christians and those struggling with same-sex attraction have often been met with ignorance, disgust, and insensitivity in their moments of need and vulnerability. Justin and Ron also recognize that many Christians often entirely refrain from engaging in the conversation for fear of being labeled as bigoted or hateful.

In their presentation, Justin and Ron shared very personal details of adolescence, and the anguish of realizing they were attracted to the same sex. After faithfully examining their identities as Christ-followers they arrived at different conclusions on what Scripture says in regard to same-sex relationships. However, Thursday night they focused primarily on how they agreed: namely the importance of civil dialogue. Obviously both sides sincerely believe contradictory claims and base those claims in Scripture, yet both engage in a respectful exchange of ideas for the sake of investing in the other person. Justin and Ron emphasized the importance of hearing one another’s life stories, respecting the conscience of the other, and seeking to understand before being understood. Often this experience is humbling— it involves defining our terms, learning which terms can come across as offensive, and addressing misperceptions. It is important to differentiate seemingly obvious terms like, “gay,” “attraction,” or “orientation.”

Fr. Mario Bergner is an ex-gay priest from a local parish who leads a ministry called Redeemed Lives. He declined the Friday convocation spot he was offered and pressured his way onto the Thursday panel with Justin and Ron, claiming he was discriminated against by the school. Instead of sharing his personal story of change, he attempted to reframe the conversation into a debate on the morality of gay sex—completely contradicting the purpose of the evening. He began by placing a vestment on his shoulders, stating he spoke with the authority of the Anglican church. He laid out a monolithic view of the human person that discounted the realities of gender and sexuality, essentially claiming that male, female, and sexual identities were temporary “post-fall” realities. He proceeded to explain the three great ills of the church today, namely the pill, abortion, and homosexuality. In graphic detail he described anal intercourse, presented questionable psychological data, and accounted for the numerous times ex-gay affiliate organizations were persecuted in Europe. His presentation was characterized by a sense of entitlement and narcissism, and it was the most uncomfortable thing I have sat through. He accused the college of all sorts of wrongs—which were all inaccurate. He was angry, and at points condemning.

During Q&A period, Ron expressed his remorse that these organizations were targeted by European governments, but related how he, a celibate gay Christian, was initially accepted and then denied a teaching position at a school over the phone by the academic dean. “Discrimination” works both ways. Justin also responded with grace and sympathy in the midst of an incredibly tense atmosphere. The room was filled with anticipation, at points you could’ve heard a pin drop.

After being asked what the church could do to better love LGBT Christians or those struggling with SSA, Fr. Bergner simply responded that the church helped him by “getting him out of homosexuality.” He then remarked that he and Justin “didn’t share the same Gospel.” Fr. Bergner essentially modeled the antithesis of respectful conversation.

We need to recognize that transforming the conversation is far from easy, but it is precisely hurtful instances such as these that prove the necessity of further reflection and dialogue. We need to extend abundant grace and sympathy where none is given, twice as much in this conversation. As hurtful and condemning as Fr. Bergner’s words were to the student body—we must refrain from generalities that paint him with too broad a brushstroke. I cannot stand seeing the terms “hate” and “bigot” thrown around haphazardly. As hurtful and aggressive as his presentation was, he was a part of the generation that saw his friends die of HIV/AIDS, therefore his methods should be questioned, but not his motivation. I won’t call his presentation graceful or loving because it wasn’t. But the use of such terms as “hate” or “bigot” causes more damage than good. It prevents people from giving others the benefit of the doubt and alienates people from full engagement with difficult issues. It is too easy to write someone off by labeling them a “hateful” human being. We need to pray for Fr. Bergner—and continued healing and reconciliation.

Refraining from offensive or inaccurate language can be the first step in transforming the conversation here at Gordon. Many proponents for LGBT rights are quick to throw around descriptors like “hate”—often with the effect of distancing or alienating those with a more traditional perspective on sexual ethics. It creates defense mechanisms that are difficult to overcome. Similarly, traditionalists often use the term “gay lifestyle,” which is terribly reductive, and imposes a single story on people’s experiences. The term often evokes associations with promiscuity, hook-up culture, and pornography. How can you assume all people romantically attracted to the same-sex live any kind of lifestyle?

In the same way, we need to recognize this is far more than a debate on sexual morality or Biblical exegesis. This is about your friends at this school. This is about my closest friends—the people I love. This is about the people you see everyday in Sunnyside Chester’s and Gillie’s, made in the image of God. You know people who are gay, or who are struggling with same-sex attraction, even if you don’t know it: every person on this campus knows someone. Why should they suffer in silence questioning simple, determined realities you take for granted? Simply the notion of companionship—of having a relationship with someone of the same sex and sharing life together; is an uncertainty for gay people attempting to reconcile their faith and sexuality.  This basic desire for relationship is viewed with relentless suspicion within evangelicalism. Given the church’s unhealthy elevation of sexual morality, we’ve come to equate such basic longings with less than savory terms such as the “gay lifestyle” or the “gay agenda.” We even equate individuals with political motivations: one might mention how gays are coopting the gospel, or re-defining the 2,000-year-old institution of marriage. The only “lifestyle” or “agenda” gay people have is to live their lives in peace. For Christians holding their faith and sexuality in tension, it means living into the fullness of who God intends you to be. I (like Justin) believe that is found in the recognition rather than in the denial of relationship.

As Ron mentioned on Friday, as your friends become more vulnerable about their struggles and experiences, treat them as human beings. They’re still the same person. We need to refrain from attaching political messages to the stories of people afraid to speak for so long. There’s no perfect thing to say after such an exchange, and it’s best friends that realize this.

Lastly, as students in a Christian institution we need to discern the core of our faith from the secondary issues. This was done quite nicely on the gender perspectives panel. The Gospel is not Jesus Christ died for my sins plus complementarianism (or egalitarianism). The Gospel is not Jesus Christ died for my sins plus voting Democratically (or Republican-lly). The Gospel is that Jesus Christ died for my sins, and day-by-day, I as an individual am conformed from sin into newness of life. My life is not my own, but rests in the identity of Christ. Fr. Mario, Justin, and Ron would assent to this with their whole being.

The question for LGBT students at Gordon is does my identity in Christ preclude other identities (such as sexual identity)? I am first and foremost a human being made in the image of God found in Christ Jesus, but I am also male, I’m a student, I’m a son, and I’m American. It would be difficult to function without identities—we need them to label our intrinsic experiences. The tendency should not be to shirk away from identity labels in favor of a paradisal Eden where gender and sexuality don’t exist—where this world doesn’t matter and constitute aspects of who we are. Creation Regained does not mean a return to Eden, it means the immanent advent of the Kingdom of Heaven. The things we do in this world have kingdom significance.

There are some students on this campus who have always experienced exclusive attraction to the same-sex, and they can’t explain why. We need to value people more than talking points. Gay students deserve to have their voices heard through more venues than If I Told You, and Sexuality week gave them that chance. I commend President Lindsay, the administration, and the sexuality week committee for enabling discourse. We can’t take it for granted. My hope is that we can continue learning to have these difficult conversations, to love and respect one another, and genuinely hear and understand one another. I believe the Gospel is bigger than what we believe about homosexuality, and I also believe it’s one of ultimate reconciliation.

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” — 2 Corinthians 5:18–20

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