On the question of gay identity and Christian sexual ethics, I start with a bare-bones theology of group identity drawn from Acts 17:26–27. In his discourse at the Areopagus, Paul briefly laid out how the Athenians have already groped toward a knowledge of God. It is because God arranges history so that, through the formation and shifting of group boundaries, human beings will identify according to distinct groups. Belonging to these groups puts one on a quest for God. Identities are how we belong to such groups in virtue of aspects of our being that are difficult to change (physical traits, heritages, dispositions, and commitments).
Morality and Identity
These groups have a moral core, a distinct conception of the good life that holds them together. In a minimal sense, this is at least the preservation of the group. The Arab historian and philosopher of history, Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) saw a pattern in the rise and fall of nations: a cycle that starts with group members being willing to give of themselves for the sake of the group and ends when group members become willing to take for themselves at the expense of the group. This solidarity norm seems to be a necessity for perpetuating one’s own group-based identity through the perpetuation of one’s group.
I propose this basic need for group perpetuation constitutes a primordial openness to transcendence. It can prompt human beings to consider whether there is a higher good than that afforded by one’s group identities for which one ought to give oneself, even a greatest and therefore enduring good that can grant identity continuity even if one’s group fails to perpetuate itself historically. That highest and everlasting good is, of course, God.
And we can see this kind of transformation taking place in Scripture when sacrifice to Yahweh survives exile. Before exile, most Jews were sacrificing to Yahweh in order to get him to make them successful. They were also sacrificing to other deities in order to hedge their bets. The prophets rebuked this kind of religion.
The exile caused those who were in it for the material blessings to lose their Jewish identity. And at the end of exile Judaism reconstituted around the prophets’ vision of God as working through Israel but also as incomparably good in and of himself, the highest good. Thus, the moral core of a group can, and often does, go beyond the minimal sense of solidarity. Groups can identify with higher purposes, though these are always subject to re-interpretation.
As an outsider, it’s not for me to define what exactly the moral core of gay identity is in that higher sense. But I sense that it has been bound up with a campaign to make it so that people who experience stable attraction to the same sex can have a distinct way of living the good life, one that accounts for the reality of a disposition that is a relatively permanent aspect of their being, and at the same time have their dignity recognized and human rights respected by the sexual majority. At least, that my self of what those who publicly identify as gay would generally affirm as an indispensable moral orientation that is bound up in that identity.
As a group, gay people are not an exception to the way that desires for the good can direct those who identify with the group to God, in whom alone those desires can ultimately be fulfilled. Paul, in the biblical example, used the piety of the Athenians to direct them to the one, true God. There was nothing in the Scriptures that certified Athenian identity. And it was connected to much that was evil (especially, for Paul, idolatry), but nevertheless, it held moral seeds that could be watered in order that God might grow the Athenians toward himself.
Recognition and Identity
Because identity is tagged to something about us that is difficult to change, we cannot make identities whatever we want them to be or take them up and put them down at will. They have to be recognized by the group to which one claims to belong, otherwise, they don’t take. This is an important check on the human tendency to self-deception. If I say I love God and hate my brother, I am a liar (1 John 4:20). I might claim to have a Christian identity based on the phenomena of having experienced him according to his Word (i.e. the “in-Christ experience”). But unless a group of fellow believers recognizes it, I’m deceiving myself (barring extraordinary circumstances where feedback from other believers isn’t available).
The church may need to even exclude me from that belonging so that I can take steps to restore my in-Christ experience. Yes, if you think your church is wrong in disciplining you based on the Scriptures, you can go and join or start another. But that will be a difficult experience that ought to cause you to question your standing with God and bring you back to a study of the Scriptures to determine the validity of your Christian identity. And if you can’t find any other believers who agree with you enough to fellowship with you, that ought to make you re-evaluate your interpretation of Scripture.
That our identities, even our Christian identity based on our in-Christ experience, are socially validated via recognition does not mean that they aren’t real. But it does mean that they are subject to interpretation and can be lived in various ways. Therefore, when someone tells me he is gay, I take that to mean he has a disposition we can neutrally refer to as same-sex attraction. But it means something more than that. It means that if he is to experience belonging with me, I must recognize that it is going to happen in a way that befits the orientations toward the good that his disposition of same-sex attraction opens to him and that he will not have access to other orientations toward the good that it closes to him.
Because group identity depends on historical circumstances and social responses to them, how this hypothetical person who identifies as gay understands the good life within that range of options is open to interpretation. To go beyond mere recognition and develop a relationship with him, I need to find out how he is interpreting his gay identity. Is he taking a libertine approach to sexual fulfillment or a monogamous one? Is he practicing celibate sexual self-denial or even seeking a transformation of his attractions? How do his religious commitments or lack thereof factor into his sexual expression/discipline? The gay identity opens these possibilities, but it does not determine them. Likewise, how a gay person interprets their identity via the choices they make will open and close various possibilities for belonging. The question I address for Adventist Christians in a previous article is, Can gay people belong with us, and, if so, how?
Identity and Tradition
To have an identity also means that one is a part of a tradition that has historically formed (or is forming) around that identity. The tradition provides various teachings and practices that orient those who are a part of it toward the good as it is understood within the tradition. I think this is where most Christians who hold to a traditional sexual ethic see a problem with identifying as gay: They see the gay tradition as overwhelmingly offering a different conception of the good; especially as it relates to sexuality, marriage, and the family; than that which they interpret the Bible to be teaching. They are largely correct in this intuition (though not always sensitive to how the gay tradition is pursuing goods that they also pursue), and I agree with them.
But what those who say a Christian should not identify as gay overlook is that a tradition is an argument extended across generations. To identify with a tradition simply means that you want to be a part of that argument—to interpret the same trait, heritage, or commitment, in the case of an identity—not that you agree with the dominant interpretation within that tradition. I certainly view myself that way when I, as a Seventh-day Adventist, identify as a Christian yet dissent from, for example, Sunday worship. Those who interpret their gay identity in a way that is consistent with the traditional sexual ethic stand in the gay tradition as reformers, not compromisers of traditional Christian ethics.
“Identity in Christ”
Some have proposed “identity in Christ” as a replacement for sexual identity, claiming that it removes the need to identify as gay. The problem is that “identity in Christ” is an oxymoron, because, as I have shown, being in-Christ is an experience, not an identity. And that experience is open to interpretation in distinct ways that result in distinct faith heritages and commitments that others need to recognize in order for one to claim to be a Christian. Thus, “identity in Christ” becomes indistinguishable from Christian identity or Adventist identity. Those who say that it obviates sexual identity ignore the crucial step of recognition in order to construe a conscious experience, that of being “in Christ,” as an identity.
Paul did not use the language of “identity in Christ;” he wrote about being “in Christ.” Identity is how we interpret shared aspects of our being together. And being “in Christ” is supposed to be interpreted in his body, the church. Because the church has a historical existence, we have to interpret our “in Christ” experience by identification within groups of those who recognize each other as having had the same experience. So not only is “identity in Christ” not a substitute for our other identities, but the suggestion that it allows us to make an end-run around the task of integrating those identities with the identities we interpret in association with other believers will lead to a spiritual dead end.
Again, just because our identity as Christians is socially validated does not mean that it isn’t real. But it does mean that we end up needing to default or commit to an interpretive community in order to form that identity. And that calls up all the questions posed by how to interpret our other identities Christianly, because Christian communities vary in terms of how sexual identities may be interpreted in order to belong to their fellowship.
Now, I fully respect those who believe they must identify as same-sex attracted or even ex-gay (provided they don’t make promises of change they can’t keep) and have initiated a separate tradition around those identities in a way that rules out interpretations that are inconsistent with the traditional sexual ethic that gay Christian identity allows for. And note well: “identify as same-sex attracted.” The identity valence of the state-of-being verb shows that renouncing “gay identity” yet claiming to “be” same-sex attracted doesn’t allow one to escape the problem of identity. Now that this facet of human existence has become salient for identity formation there is no putting the historical toothpaste back in the identity bottle. Christians need to have a way of talking about such identities, and the question is how to express it clearly, conscientiously, and with consideration.
I’m opposite-sex attracted, so I don’t have a horse in that race. On the other hand, I have to select a term to talk about these things, and I have chosen “gay Christian,” despite the ambiguity, because (1) it uses two identifiers that everyone understands and (2) opens a door for people who identify as gay to belong in the church. But I accept that gay Christian identity for those who uphold the traditional sexual ethic may be consigned to the dustbin of history, as have so many other identities and interpretations thereof.
Gay Christian Identity and Sin
What I do think is misguided is when Christians try to rule out gay Christian identity on the grounds that it is necessarily a compromise with sin, because that simply isn’t how identity works in any other arena of life. When an alcoholic in recovery claims that identity, they aren’t building an identity on temptation. They are claiming a different relationship to alcohol in social situations and membership in a tradition that provides mutual support and divine help in overcoming sin. When Paul identifies as the “foremost” of “sinners” (1 Tim 1:15), he didn’t do so in order to build his self-conception on sin, but in order to identify with his Savior (1:16).
We might call someone a thief, but outside of contexts with a tradition of thievery that is integrated into the social order (see, e.g. the hajduks), that is simply a way of imputing guilt and/or shame via a form of recognition that withholds validation. Some identities need to be renounced, like that of Nazi, because they provide no plausible orientation to the good from a biblical perspective. But Yarhouse’s research shows that sexual attractions can’t be renounced the way ideologies can. They are relatively stable dispositions around which identities have formed. And we can’t roll back history to when people weren’t identified according to their sexual attractions.
Identity as Calling
I propose that understanding that calling/vocation is how Christians interpret identity can clear up the conflation of a historical identity with sin. A calling is how an identity cashes out for Christians when we ask the question, How has God called me as a “fill-in-the-blank” to demonstrate self-sacrificial love? With that question in view, identity becomes about all the ways God has called individuals to worship/service in terms of how they belong to various groups in virtue of their traits, dispositions, and commitments. And in that framework, being a sexual minority is not merely about experiencing a different set of temptations. It’s more about being open to a distinct set of opportunities to follow in the way of Christ Jesus.
Celibacy, and all the sacrifices and rewards that go along with it, is one example of such an identity-based calling. Mixed-orientation marriage, though fraught, is another. The church needs to develop practices that discern, recognize, honor, and celebrate such callings, just as we do the calling to traditional marriage. And such callings should also be supported with the same intentionality that we pour into supporting marriage. Those are just two examples of how gay or same-sex attracted identity can open up a calling within the framework of the traditional sexual ethic. Spiritual friendship has also been proposed. The point is that the church in sexually expressive societies needs to develop a vision of discipleship that can allow such people to belong in the body of Christ in order to begin to explore the possibilities.
In the post-sexual revolution world, we need a way of talking about how sexual minorities are going to belong in our churches and in our communities relative to sexuality, family, and marriage. With respect to homosexuality, that identifier could be “gay,” same-sex attracted,” or something else. But if gay Christians, under the transforming power of God, interpret their identity in ways that are consistent with the traditional sexual ethic and are able to make room in the gay tradition for their contribution to that argument to be seen as authentic, I see no reason to hinder them from identifying as such.
Further, I suspect that Christians who identify as gay, celibate or not, would want to extend that quest for recognition to the body of Christ, meaning that the sexual majority of Christians should affirm that one can be a follower of Jesus in a distinct way that is opened by same-sex attraction. Such recognition is necessary if the church is to develop and sustain the callings that God has placed on the lives of his gay children.