At Jesus’ baptism, His identity is affirmed as the beloved Son of God (Matt 3:17). Following this, Jesus enters into the wilderness and the devil tempts Him saying, “If you are the Son of God…” (Matt 4:3, emphasis added). Nadia Bolz-Weber, in her book Pastrix, comments astutely on this sequence of events writing, “if God’s first move is to give us our identity, then the devil’s first move is to throw that identity into question.” Particularly at the intersection of faith and sexuality, the question of one’s identity becomes a quandary.
Christians often encounter significant tension when it comes to defining their sexual identity. Some Christians prefer the term “same-sex attracted,” viewing this as a way to emphasize the centrality of their identity in Christ. On the other hand, some Christians advocate that using the term “gay” is essential in order to help dismantle hurtful stereotypes like that of the promiscuous “gay lifestyle.” Of course, this can become even more nuanced. For example, is “gay” being used as an adjective or a noun? Since identity is so complex, it’s important not to forget the bigger picture. In this article, Matthew Lee Anderson urges, “let’s reconsider not just the language of ‘sexual identity’ but that of ‘identity’ altogether.” Reconsidering what it means to identify as a Christian will provide an essential foundation for discussing sexual identity.
In the Bible, Jesus’ disciples never called themselves Christians. Rather, this was a term that outsiders assigned to them based on evidence that indicated they were followers of Christ. Unfortunately, few today have earned the name “Christian” in that sense. Today Christians are known more by what they stand against than what they stand for. Being a “Christian” has become an identity of negation. When someone is handed a pink slip at work, a friend might try to console them by saying that as a Christian, their identity isn’t in a job, it’s in Christ. When someone goes through a bad breakup, they may be reminded that their identity isn’t in being a good boyfriend or girlfriend, it’s in Christ. However, Matthew Lee Anderson suggests that “it seems we should get to our ‘identity in Christ’ by a road other than negation.” For example, he recommends that Christians should embrace their identity as children of God because this denotes “a social role […] that can be filled, a role that imposes duties (play!) and obligations (play nicely!).” As children of God, how then should Christians think about their sexual identity?
The first thing I like to point out is the fact that sexual identity is a social construction. As Jenell Williams Paris writes in The End of Sexual Identity, “God created sexuality. People created sexual identity.” This is not to say that a person’s sexual identity is not real or legitimate. Sexual identity can be beneficial in that it may enable people to find a place where they belong. Sometimes though, a sexual identity label is less than helpful when it causes people to put an individual in a particular box and define them only by that box. The box becomes the focus and no matter how liberating it may be, a cage is still a cage. A person should not be defined only by their sexuality. Jenell Williams Paris’ solution to this is to become “unlabeled,” which is not exactly a solution at all (for a more complete discussion of this, see my previous blog post). How can someone balance their own self-perception with the way that others perceive them? Again, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer.
I’ll end with this reminder from Tyler Edwards: “when things we do or abstain from doing become the defining characteristics of who we are, we lose the greater identity of ‘whose’ we are.” Let’s not forget that most importantly, Christians are the beloved children of God.