Identity is an important concept and it’s biblical. There are biblically-sanctioned identities based on traits (“patience,” “kindness,” “faithfulness,”), relationships (“father,” “mother,” “sister,” “brother”), roles, (“friend,” “pastor”), and personal histories (“I became a Christian”). But there are also biblically-condemned identities based on all of the above. Both have eternal consequences (1 Cor 6:9-11). Confuse them at your own peril.
C.S. Lewis said many famous things, but one of the most striking was his declaration, “You have never talked to a mere mortal.”1 Lewis was reflecting on the biblical teaching that, after the resurrection, “the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.”2 His vivid imagery is made all the more sobering by his next point: whoever or whatever we are now is “as the life of a gnat”3 in comparison to who and what we will be for all eternity. In light of this, it should be a given that all Christians see and acknowledge that an obsessive focus on who and what we are in this life is one of the crudest forms of idolatry. Sadly, it isn’t.
What Are We Talking About?
When we talk about who and what we are, we’re talking about identity: “the distinguishing character or personality of an individual,” (Merriam-Webster, definition 1a). Identity is what makes human beings distinct from all other creatures, it’s what makes Asians distinct from Africans, Italians distinct from Iranians, men distinct from women, Christians distinct from Muslims, and you and me distinct from everyone else. And unless we invest these distinctions with more meaning than they have on the surface, that’s all identity really is: a set of distinguishing characteristics that help us tell one set or example of things or people from others.
So why would we give identity any more meaning than that? Is it ever legitimate to do so? And what are the consequences of doing so?
Well, we’ve been seeing some of the answers to those questions all around us in recent years. The concept of identity has undergone a radical shift in my lifetime, especially here in the United States, so much so that it’s not too much to say that this shift has not only touched off a culture war but what appears to be a cultural revolution. The goal of legitimizing all sorts of personal identities that “respectable people” didn’t even talk about 50 years ago, or at least didn’t consider inherent to who or what anyone was, has become such a driving force in much of our culture that much of our daily news consists of reports on the latest in a long chain of social and political explosions detonated by those determined to erase traditional concepts of identity and replace them with new ones. If it’s true that you can always tell what idols people worship by how quickly they sin against God and people in order to defend them—and it is—then personal identity has become the hallmark idol of our times. How did we get to this point?
Why These Thoughts Are Only Preliminary
As I prepare to put this article into its final form, I’m in the process of reading Carl R. Trueman’s new book (released November 10, 2020), The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. Trueman is a church historian whose previous writings I’ve benefited from greatly. His latest has already received some impressive reviews and been the topic of podcasts that I’ve listened to, so I expect to have more to say about this important work in days to come.
Early in the book, he acknowledges his debt to Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and in the process provides a glimpse of the answer to my question of how we got here:
…Taylor highlights three points of significance in the modern development of what it means to be a self: a focus on inwardness, or the inner psychological life, as decisive for who we think we are; the affirmation of ordinary life that develops in the modern era; and the notion that nature provides us with an inner moral source. These developments manifest themselves in numerous ways. Most significant for my argument in this book, they lead to a prioritization of the individual’s inner psychology—we might even say “feelings” or “intuitions”—for our sense of who we are and what the purpose of our lives is. To leap ahead, transgenderism provides an excellent example: people who think they are a woman trapped in a man’s body are really making their inner psychological convictions absolutely decisive for who they are; and to the extent that, prior to “coming out,” they have publicly denied this inner reality, to that extent they have had an inauthentic existence. This is why the language of “living a lie” often appears in the testimonies of transgender people.4
From what I’ve read thus far, what Trueman builds upon Taylor’s foundation is significant enough that I should hesitate to say too much about identity until I’ve read it—and I actually wasn’t planning on writing anything on this topic until I had. But then I came across something on Twitter.
Tweeting to the Choir
The tweet is designed to be sarcastically ironic and iconoclastic. It takes aim at and tries to shoot down one of the standard Christian arguments against the notion that it’s alright for a believer to identify him- or herself as a “gay Christian,” “lesbian Christian,” “transgender Christian,” etc. It was written by a student at my denomination’s5 seminary, Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, named Grant Hartley, who co-hosts The Life on Side B Podcast. He wrote:
Heartbreaking news: one of my friends has begun to identify as both a “husband” and a “father. Doesn’t he know his identity is in Christ, not his sexuality? I am worried that he has begun to identify as a “straight Christian.”6
Hartley—along with several of his Twitter followers—thinks he’s onto something. If the fact that our true identity is in Christ makes it wrong for a Christian to identify himself as “gay” or herself as “lesbian” or “zherself” (or whatever) as “trans,” why should it be OK for a Christian man to identify himself as a “husband” or “father?” Isn’t the anti-LGBTQ+ Christian making the same unbiblical mistake when he does?
Hartley believes he has caught conservative believers who retain the millennia-old traditional interpretations of Scripture on the horns of a dilemma. But has he?
Now, before I go any further, I should make it clear that those in the “Side-B” camp have publicly committed themselves to avoiding unbiblical sexual relationships. So, Grant Hartley is not advocating for the view that it’s acceptable for Christians to practice gay or lesbian sex. Here is how the terms “Side-A” and “Side-B” are defined in this discussion:
- Side-A: “These folks believe that same sex individuals can have a sexual relationship together. Similar to some straight Christian folks, some believe in waiting until marriage or a committed relationship for sexual relationships… others do not.”7
- Side-B: “These folks believe you can embrace same sex attraction and / or gay identity but do not believe that same sex sexual relationships honor God. Lgbt individuals who believe this either live a celibate life or have a heterosexual marriage (sometimes called a mixed orientation marriage). They also may have a committed same-sex relationship but not have sex.”8
Now, the usual response to Hartley’s and Side-B’s argument is that it’s wrong for Christians to base their identities on something sinful. After all, if someone came into your church this Sunday identifying himself as “an adulterous Christian” or herself as “a kleptomaniac Christian,” or even as someone with such tendencies and inner attractions, your pastor would probably advise them from refraining from the communion table for the time being. These things are not considered OK. But Hartley thinks he has these objections covered. In his next tweet, he says:
I tried to confront him on identity language, and it is so much worse than I originally thought. In the course of a conversation, he quoted one of the theologians he has been reading lately and called himself the “chief of sinners.” How can he identify with his sin?9
Of course, the theologian his friend has been reading lately is none other than the Apostle Paul, who in 1 Timothy 1:15 wrote that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief,” (KJV) But in what way is Paul “identifying” with his sin here? Is he saying that his status as a sinner is something positive, or even neutral? The Greek word Paul uses here is prōtos (πρῶτος), which means “first.” Paul obviously was not the first one who ever sinned, nor did he believe himself to be that, so the word must be interpreted contextually. The NASB and ESV have “foremost.” But as if to answer our question, the NIV has “worst.” All of these renderings are accurate, but the NIV captures Paul’s point in the immediate context: it’s not that he so identified with his sin that he thought it was “OK” to be a sinner, but rather he considered himself the worst sinner Christ ever saved.
Hartley goes on to make other points in his Twitter thread, but with even less cogency than these first two. So, I’ll pass over them and move on.
Grant Harley, and indeed, all of the so-called “Side-B” school of thinking misses Paul’s point, as well as the point of all biblical teaching on our status as sinners, in spectacular fashion. This is the inevitable consequence of “embrac[ing] same sex attraction and / or gay identity” even while attempting to live out the biblical sexual ethic. As someone who was once deeply involved in the LGBT community but is now a Christian, Rosaria Butterfield, explains:
While Side B seeks to uphold biblical sexual standards, because it sees sexual orientation as an accurate category of personhood (i.e., there is such a thing as a gay person—that gayness describes who someone essentially is), their theology in no way allows for an understanding of why homosexuality, even at the level of desire, is sinful and needing the grace of repentance. To the Side B Christian, homosexuality is a sexuality—one of many.10
Jesus made it clear that to desire to sin is on the same level of sinfulness before God as committing sinful acts. To lust after a member of the opposite sex who is not my spouse makes me guilty of adultery in my heart before God (Matt. 5:27-28). But in fact, it goes even deeper than that. To fly off the handle in anger against someone makes me guilty of murder in God’s eyes, even though I’ve not specifically planned to kill anyone (Matt. 5:21-22). So, how is it that homosexual desire gets an exemption from these principles that were so clearly laid out by our Lord?
Arguments against Side-B’s promotion of “gay Christian” as a valid category that are based on our identity in Christ are not dependent on the proposition that our identity in Christ somehow erases everything else that distinguishes us from other people. That is a (deliberate?) distortion of what Christians mean when they admonish believers who struggle with same-sex attraction to avoid finding their identities in that attraction but rather to find it in union with Christ. They don’t make that admonition because the other things that identify to us have lost all significance, but because union with Christ—Who in no way promotes sin (Gal. 2:17)—precludes us from thinking we can embrace same-sex attraction anymore than we can embrace the attraction to commit adultery or murder.
A Preliminary Dissection and Analysis of the Concept of Identity
So, having made these observations about Grant Hartley’s tweet and the Side-B school of “gay Christianity,” I would like to present some thoughts I’ve previously shared with others on the topic of identity from a biblical perspective, especially as it has come to serve as a ping-pong ball in the current discussions on sexual ethics. For reasons stated earlier, these observations are preliminary. Once I finish Carl Trueman’s book and some others, I hope to expand on these tentative jottings.
Identity is a valid and necessary concept, but it can be a slippery word, making it ripe for equivocation fallacies. To expand on Merriam-Webster’s definition (supplied above), it denotes the traits, relationships, roles, or histories of things or people that distinguish them from other things or people. These traits, relationships, roles, or histories can be impersonal or personal. So, the concept behind the word is broad. Here’s how it works in everyday speech:
- Impersonal: “Not the red ball but the blue one.”
- Personal: “Not the hot-tempered man but the calm woman.”
- Impersonal: “Not the third but the fourth furthest moon from Jupiter.”
- Personal: “Not James the son of Zebedee but James the son of Alphaeus.”
- Impersonal: “Not the cutting tool but the fastening tool.”
- Personal: “Not John the Baptist but John the Apostle.”
- Impersonal: “Not the tree that was struck by lightning but the one next to it.”
- Personal: “Not the apostle who was martyred in Acts chapter 12, but the apostle who previously martyred Christians in Acts chapter 7.”
I think that once we take account of all these varied ways in which we identify things and people, it will supply us with more precision and help us to avoid misunderstanding as seek to correct errors about identity that have infiltrated the church.
How Paul Viewed His Identity
The Apostle Paul devotes significant space in his epistles to questions of his own identity. He often identified himself in terms of his personal history, as one who had previously persecuted the church (Acts 22:4; 26:9-11; 1 Cor 15:9; Gal 1:13, 23; Phil 3:6; 1 Tim 1:13), but he didn’t do so for the purpose of establishing that as his primary identity. For him, that consisted of who and what he was before God.
Much less did he treat it as something to be “embraced” the way Side-B advocates embrace same-sex attraction. While giving a compelling account of Christ’s resurrection, Paul devotes a sidebar to his own identity as an apostle to whom the risen Christ appeared (1 Cor 15:8-9). This was crucial to his identity as an apostle (1 Cor 9:1). But he ends this sidebar saying, “But by the grace of God I am what I am,” (1 Cor 15:10). It was not his history as a sinner, or even the history that led to his apostleship, that ultimately mattered. Only God’s grace in saving him from the penalty of his sins gave him his ultimate identity (Gal 3:20). Nevertheless, his history remained not only a part of his testimony, but also a part of his identity as an apostle; it distinguished him from the Twelve. Still, he never took pride in it but rather saw it as highlighting his unworthiness (1 Cor 15:9).
Paul also frequently identified himself in terms of his role as apostle, but even then it was not to take pride in it but to use it to save others (cf. Rom 11:13-14).
He also identified himself in terms of his relationships: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee,” (Phil. 3:5 ESV), but he counted all that as “loss for the sake of Christ” (v. 7) and even “rubbish” (v. 8). It was not a source of pride for him.
But Paul rarely identified himself in terms of his traits. In fact, we know very little about his impersonal, physical traits. We don’t know whether he was tall or short, thin or fat, bald or with a full head of hair. Everything he tells us along those lines originated with his enemies, who said he was physically unimpressive and a poor speaker (2 Cor 10:10). These are obviously not bragging points.
He also rarely identified himself in terms of his personality traits. We don’t know whether he was an introvert or extrovert, whether he was more cerebral or emotional, whether he tended to be patient or struggled with a short temper, to what extent he may have struggled with lust, or depression. We don’t know what his sinful “orientations” were, but we know that he had them from reading Romans 7, where perhaps he hints that covetousness was one of them (v. 7-8). And we also know that these “orientations” grieved him deeply, and caused him to cry out, “Wretched man that I am!” (v. 24). He did not consider them to be at all on a par with his relational identity as a Jew or his role identity as a male. They were things to be deeply mourned in a way those other things weren’t.
So, what Covenant Seminary student Grant Hartley, who identifies himself as “gay/Queer,” has done here is commit a kind of ethical equivocation fallacy with the words “identify” and “identity.” Relational identities like husband and father are part of God’s original pre-Fall design for the world. But identities like “gay/Queer” are antithetical to that design and originated from Satan. Biblically speaking, these two ways of identifying are not morally equal and thus they don’t mean the same thing before God.
But you would never know this from reading the “Statement on Sexual Ethics and Christian Obedience” produced by another Side-B organization, Revoice, which says:
“As those who share one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, we believe that other features within the composite of individual identity—such as nationality, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation—do not change or add to this spiritual identity but should be ordered in relation to this ultimate identity in Christ, which unites all within the household of God.”
To Revoice, as with other Side-B advocates, sexual orientation is an identity on the same par with the divinely sanctioned identities of nationality, ethnicity (Gen 10; Acts 17:26) and gender (Gen 2:20-24). Now, we know that God does sanction one particular “sexual orientation,” but that’s not what Revoice is referring to, but rather to all the “orientations” that have emerged since the Fall as perversions of the only holy orientation. They make this very clear.
And Revoice is particularly aggrieved over “‘ex-gay theology’ and a variety of ministries which promote the pursuit of orientation change as a chief measure of sanctification for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other same sex attracted Christians.”11 They believe that, “Thousands of men and women have suffered great spiritual harm and continue to live with deep emotional scars as a result of their participation in ministries focused on orientation change.”12
But even if the pursuit of orientation change is not the “chief measure of sanctification” for “LGBTQ+ Christians,”13 how can they avoid mentioning that it plays at least some role in sanctification? If someone has an “orientation” toward stealing, or murderous rage, or adultery, or sex with children, (God forbid!) should they not seek to eliminate and even reverse such urges as they pursue sanctification?
While it may be a mistake “to question the legitimacy of [people’s] faith on account of [the] absence or inconsistency” of heterosexual desire, once they become Christians, why would such people not actively seek to “put off [their] “old sel[ves], which belongs to [their] former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of [their] minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness,” (Eph. 4:22-24 ESV)? And since “the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” includes the original “sexual orientation” created in the Garden of Eden—and no other!—why would a Christian not seek to follow Paul’s admonition to renew themselves accordingly?
Once you reject this admonition, as Revoice certainly has done with respect to its cherished category of “sexual orientation,” there are only two things left to do:
- find as many ways as you can to rationalize your disobedience to Scripture, and
- mock those who call you back to biblical integrity.
As we can see, Grant Hartley is gleefully doing both in his Twitter thread.
Identity is an important concept and it’s biblical. There are biblically-sanctioned identities based on traits (“patience,” “kindness,” “faithfulness,”), relationships (“father,” “mother,” “sister,” “brother”), roles, (“friend,” “pastor”), and personal histories (“I became a Christian”). But there are also biblically-condemned identities based on all of the above. Both have eternal consequences (1 Cor 6:9-11). Confuse them at your own peril.Ω
Ron Henzel is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America and serves a ruling elder at Providence PCA in Cape Coral, Fla. This article is used with permission.
|↑1||The Weight of Glory, (San Francisco, CA, USA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 46.|
|↑4||Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, (Wheaton, IL, USA: Crossway, 2020), Kindle Edition, 21-22.|
|↑5||The Presbyterian Church in America.|
|↑6||Grant Hartley @TheGrantHartley, from Twitter at 10:02 AM E.T., Dec 30, 2020|
|↑7||Coming Out for Christians, “Side-A” It further states, “Definitions of the sides are derived from Bridges-Across and GCN web sites|
|↑8||Coming Out for Christians, “Side-B” It further states, “Definitions of the sides are derived from Bridges-Across and GCN web sites|
|↑9||Grant Hartley @TheGrantHartley, from Twitter at 10:02 AM E.T., Dec 30, 2020|
|↑10||Rosaria Butterfield, “What is wrong with gay Christianity? What is Side A and Side B anyway?” February 14, 2018.|
|↑11||“Statement on Public Posture and Christian Witness”|