Published in The Church of England Newspaper – 17th November 2013
That was the advice I heard being given by a lecturer at an evangelical theological college in the UK. He was advising students on how to respond pastorally to a homosexual enquirer at the churches they would be ministering in.
The phrase is not new of course. If you put ‘same-sex attraction’ into any internet search engine, you will find a host of websites promising change for people who experience or ‘suffer from’ same-sex attraction.
Behind it is a theology of identity which is opposed to people identifying themselves as gay or lesbian, and which argues that adopting such an identity is at best a mistake, and at worst idolatry.
The theological rationale behind this is as follows. Sexuality should not be the defining factor in determining our identity. Our true identity comes from recognising that we are created male and female in the image of God – not from our sexual feelings – and from our identity in Christ as new creations in His kingdom. Therefore to say that you are gay (or lesbian or bisexual or transgender) is to be tricked by modern societal values into identifying yourself in some other way – by allowing your sexuality to be the defining factor in your humanity. This not only leads to an inner confusion in understanding who you are, but it also leads you away from your God given identity.
So don’t say you are gay – don’t own that identity – rather say you experience (or suffer from) same-sex attraction.
But this understanding of Christian identity is deeply flawed. Christians who identify themselves as gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender are not setting up this identity in opposition to their core identity as created by God and born again as a child of God. Their sexuality does not supersede or usurp their identity as created by God – instead it enhances their sense of God-given identity.
In other areas of life, this is quite normal. No-one would ever dream of saying to a black Christian, “Don’t say you’re black – say you experience dark skin.” It would be unthinkable, insulting and offensive. It would rightly be seen as some kind of perverse racism.
Yet if we follow the same logic, this would be entirely appropriate. If our identity comes from our creation as male and female and our new creation in Christ, and nothing else; if to own any other identity is to be tricked by modern values and will detract from our God given identity; then surely, it would be entirely right to say to black people, “Don’t say you’re black – say you experience dark skin”.
Of course this is rubbish. If you are black, then being black is a part of your God given identity. Owning that identity rather than denying it, enriches cultural diversity as part of human identity. It is not in competition with our identity as someone created by God, but rather a part of it and adds another dimension to our understanding of the fullness of what it means to be created in the image of God.
The same is true of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans people. The vast majority see their sexuality or gender identity as part of their God given identity. It is not in competition to their identity as created by God, but rather an enriching part of it.
What is more, I have seen at first hand the dangers of telling someone to divorce their sexuality from their faith and identity. A close friend of mine at the same theological college was told by his bishop to set aside his sexuality if he wanted to be ordained. For him, trying to be obedient to this instruction led to deep inner turmoil and, within a few years, to his premature and painful death.
Christian wholeness comes only when we embrace our God-given identity in all its fullness – anything less than this makes us less than the people God created us to be.
Rev Benny Hazlehurst