Each age is defined by its prevailing cultural questions. Painting in broad strokes, in the first centuries after Christ people wrestled with the question of God: Who is God? The Church responded with the historic creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian) to concisely and emphatically emphasize the two natures of Jesus and the tri-unity of God. The Middle Ages was in upheaval over the question of salvation: How is man reconciled to God? The Lutheran confessors answered with the Lutheran Confessions in which they unequivocally insisted that man was reconciled to God because of Christ’s work alone. Christ alone made satisfaction for sin; our works had no place in salvation.
Our age is in turmoil over this question: Who is man? It’s an identity question. Where is our identity anchored? On what is it built? Many in our culture have anchored identity in sexuality. We have been conditioned to think in terms of heterosexual and homosexual and to use a new alphabet to identify people: LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer or questioning).
Thoughtful sociological studies demonstrate just how Americanized/Europeanized these categories are. Without going into any detail, these categories are not and have not been employed by other cultures throughout history. Yes, people have always engaged in a range of sexual behavior and have experienced a diversity of sexual desires, but attaching identity to sexual desires is a very culturally bound practice, one that is fraught with problems. Jenell Williams Paris insightfully observes in her thought-provoking book The End of Sexual Identity, “God created sexuality. People created sexual identity” (75). For the next several paragraphs we will explore why “sexual identity” is riddled with problems and why and where God establishes our identity.
Let’s start in the very beginning!
We begin… in the beginning, with creation. This may seem obvious, but it’s the very place people consistently fail to begin. Our culture’s wedding of identity to sexuality has only become possible as we have divorced it from creation, denying Scripture’s account of origins or forgetting its significance in the identity question.
The first chapters of Scripture narrate man’s beginning, teaching us that we are contingent beings. We owe our existence to Almighty God. And, as the first pages of Scripture narrate and the full panoply of creation demonstrates, God is a purposeful God. Creation pulsates with divine purpose. Trees bud and flower, cells divide, hearts pump, and birds call, not randomly, but with clear divine-directed purpose. Creation pursues its divinely given ends.
Previous generations called it teleology, recognizing the inherent purpose in creation, a purpose toward which creation seemed innately drawn. To make the abstract more concrete, previous generations, seeing God as a purposeful Creator, saw the biological sexes as morally significant creations of God that informed identity. To be more direct still: biology (our created body) informs our identity.
We can see this spelled out in the pages of Scripture as God, upon the completion of each purpose-directed day of creation, saw that, “It was good.” Let’s look at man’s creation on day six. Scripture narrates:
Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”… And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good (Gen. 1:26-28, 31).
Look where God grounds identity: in our created nature as male or female. Desires are not mentioned. That doesn’t mean desires are unimportant; it does, however, help us answer the question of our age – Who is man? Man has been created male and female as divine image bearers. This, Scripture says, is good, even very good. Scripture also reveals that marriage aimed toward procreation is good and that man’s loving dominion over creation is good.
If these are good, then anything that denies them would be not good. So, if defining man as male and female image bearers of God is good, denying creation’s place in identity, denying the body’s place in identity, rejecting the concepts of male and female, is not good. If marriage aimed toward procreation is good, denying the good of procreation and the essential role of fathers and mothers is not good. If loving dominion over creation is good, abusing, neglecting, and exploiting creation is not good.
What is good is discerned not by any reference to man’s desires, but by reference to God’s creation. In fact, if we keep reading in Scripture for two more chapters, we discover that our desires have been bent, warped by the sin we have inherited from Adam. These bent desires are a terrible foundation for identity. They are fickle. They wax and wane, enflame and cool. Our identity is simply too important to build on our desires.
Further, when we build our identity on sexual desires, we end up pitting one set of desires against others. More specifically, we end up pitting heterosexual desires against homosexual, bi-sexual, trans-sexual, and every other desire that isn’t heterosexual. And this leaves us with two classes of people: heterosexuals, who are adorned with the label “good,” and homosexuals and anyone who doesn’t have heterosexual desires, who are shamed with the label “not good.” But, as Mrs. Paris points out in The End of Sexual Identity, “No one has a head start [on sexual holiness]” (9).
It’s no wonder the church sometimes gets labeled judgmental or unwelcoming. In too many cases we’ve bought into the lie of sexual identity (rooting identity someplace other than where Scripture roots it) and used it to condemn people for having the wrong desires, desires they didn’t choose. Because we’ve started in the wrong place, we focus on the wrong thing. As Mrs. Paris explains,
The major problem for Christians with… sexual identity… is that it is a social construct that provides a faulty pattern for understanding what it means to be human, linking desire to identity in a way that violates biblical themes (43)
Instead of focusing on our creational identity as male or female, we’ve become fixated on a person’s desires. So we end up directing our efforts at changing people’s desires to align with the “good” desires, which we identity as heterosexual desires. The problem is that heterosexual desires aren’t good by default. Heterosexual desires are often bent so as to be fixated on sinful pursuits including pornography, secret sexual or intimate fantasies for a non-spouse, living together without marriage, and many, many more. Focusing on desires is the wrong focus.
When we begin with creation, however, we are able to identify what God calls good and where He grounds our identity. Our created identity as male or female is good. We may find that our desires do not align with our created identity. We may discover heterosexual sinful desires, homosexual sinful desires, and any number of sinful, sexual desires. This should not surprise us or alarm us. The fall has impacted us all. None of us has a leg up on sexual purity.
So, instead of focusing on acquiring the “right” desires, and instead of labeling a person on the basis of his or her desires, we turn to our Creator for our identity as well as for our help and hope. When we do, we discover the astonishingly good news of our redemption in Christ. We are redeemed creatures! Yes, we may have desires that beset us, desires that we didn’t choose, but we are bigger than these. We are NOT defined by these. We are defined by God’s creating and redeeming work. We are redeemed males and females.
Does this mean that our unwanted desires will go away? Not necessarily. As morally bent creatures, we may battle unwanted and unchosen desires our entire lives. This is what it means to be fallen creatures. But as redeemed creatures, we rejoice to discover that we are not defined by our desires, we are not segmented into morally different sexual groups, we are not pigeonholed by a sexual label. Christ’s blood was shed for us all. Further, it means we ALL share a common goal: living in line with what God has called good and seeking sexual purity and holiness together. None begins in a higher place. None is inherently advantaged. We are equally created, equally fallen, and equally redeemed.
As the church we must find our voice. The sexual identities being pushed by our culture are separating and segregating us. Embracing our creational identity as redeemed creatures of God bearing His image as male and female will unite us. That is the message we must learn to confess. – Pastor Conner