If there’s one area where we as Christians have the opportunity to be transformed, to think uniquely and differently than the world around us, and perhaps be a transformative influence ourselves, it’s in virtually every area surrounding the biblical ethos of sexuality: sexual orientation and gender identity, to be sure, but not limited there. This ethos extends to marriage, family, and singleness, and I’ve written on all these topics. Yet, nothing seems to have such a hold on the cultural consciousness as sexual orientation and gender identity issues.
Cultural perspectives surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity have changed more in my lifetime than perhaps any other phenomenon. When you think about it, it’s a fascinating shift. For nearly 2,000 years, since the rise of the Church in the West, sexual practice has been viewed as something we do or engage in, but not something we are– traditionally unrelated to our identities. This is consistent with the biblical view. In Scripture, many people, most notably Jesus and Paul, lived completely celibate lives, without ever sacrificing or jeopardizing their identity. Paul encouraged celibacy as a completely fulfilling, if not preferable, way of life for believers (I Cor. 7). Whether or not we engaged in sexual practice, who we were attracted to, or who we had sex with, was never considered part of who we were; it never defined us.
On the other hand, gender and biological sex were functionally synonymous terms, not parsed out as our culture now does. Furthermore, in Scripture, they are definitely linked to identity. To be distinctly male or female is portrayed in the Bible as essential to our identity, central to who we are as image-bearers of God, at the very point of creation (Gen. 1:27; Mark 10:6). God creates us this way with purpose. He has both male and female characteristics revealed in Scripture–paternalism and provision, nurturing and care–and by creating us male and female, together we fully manifest these characteristics and bear His image.
In a post-Fall world, everything is distorted by sin. Furthermore, we have an enemy, the devil, who Scripture says is constantly seeking to devour and distract us from God’s initial creative order, His plan for our lives. In this broken, distorted culture, confused by Satan and fueled by our own sin, we have completely inverted this millennia-long state of affairs. Now, sexual orientation, my sexual practice, who I am attracted to, and who I have sex with, is tied to my identity, now who I am. Because it is part of my identity, it is immutable, it can’t be changed, and to suggest that it can is as culturally-offensive as suggesting that a white person can become black, or a naturally-born Serbian can become born-again German. At the same time, gender is now fluid; it has the ability to change from day-to-day. It is no longer tied to my identity; it is a choice I make.
It’s easy to click our tongues, to decry our “perverse” generation, and to write off whole groups of people and positions as just wrong or disconnected from reality. But, I think a much more charitable, compassionate, and, frankly, Christian approach is to understand how we got to this place, so as to be transformed ourselves, and to be people of transformation. This shift happened for a reason, and there are specific historic, philosophical, and culturally-defined ways we think of ourselves, of happiness, and the meaning of life, as a culture that have very little to do with sex, but that have implications on why our cultural views of sex and gender changed. And, persuasion is not the solution, but transformation- seeing life through the lens of the Holy Spirit.
There are no easy answers to how we got here; it is a series of historical and philosophical shifts that occurred over centuries, but came to fruition recently. From the days of the Enlightenment to the present, the concept of self, who I am and how I see myself and the world around me, has shifted in the western world from being largely externally-referenced to self-referenced. Here’s what I mean. Our ancestors believed, and Scripture supports, the idea that our sense of self, of who we are, is defined externally, by a God who created us and whose image we bear. They, and those of us who still see through that scriptural lens, believe that our being is in Him, and we know what we know because He has shown it to us. According to this perspective, I am who my creator says I am, and my happiness and contentment is found in seeking out how and why He created me, according to His plan and purpose. If I discover that, and learn to live it out, this perspective goes, I will live according to the way God intended me to live consistent with my actual being, and I will find joy and contentment.
This is not the operating system of the modern, or the postmodern world. Beginning with Descartes in the 17th century, trying to capture the essence of self and finding it within our ability to think and reason (“I think, therefore, I am”) westerners like us began defining ourselves through our thoughts, what we believed about ourselves. Immanuel Kant, probably the greatest of the modern western philosophers, took this idea further, and offered that our sense of meaning and understanding of the world around us is defined and discovered through our perception of these things through our senses and reason. Thus, we attach meaning to reality, and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to discern meaning apart from the meaning we attach. From these philosophical forefathers of the 17th and 18th centuries, through a whole bunch of others, to the present, what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls our “social imaginary”- the subconscious, default way we perceive the world around us, our mental operating system, if you will- shifted toward becoming internally-referenced, defined by ourselves, our own perceptions, and not by God. We defined who we are by turning inward.
In his book, Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution, Carl Trueman notes that these shifts, over time, have redefined our default sense of self, our notion of where the “real me” is to be found, how that shapes my view of life, and how to find fulfillment or happiness of that “real me.” According to Trueman, our default sense of self as westerners is what he calls “expressive individualism,” a term coined by scholar Robert Bellah and meaning the sense that the only way to express your individuality is to unleash the core of feeling and intuition inside you. In other words, we achieve identity and authenticity by acting outwardly in accordance with our inward feelings, by living out what we feel to be true.
This idea of expressive individualism, that the true “me” is inside of “me,” waiting to be expressed according to what I discover and feel about myself, is what we believe as a culture to be true. When combined with postmodern thought–that truth is culturally and socially defined by the narratives of its people, rather than by some fixed absolute truth– these factors explain why it’s now culturally offensive to criticize people for their personal lifestyle choices, or why those with characteristics that can change, such as gender identity- can now clothe themselves in the same language of civil rights as those with characteristics that don’t, like race- because we are free to perform life in whatever way we feel and choose. After all, we are just unfolding the real us. Any attempt to challenge these choices or express disapproval is an attack on the right of that person to be whoever they wish to be (This is a distinctly western way of thinking, incidentally, even though its influence may be felt elsewhere. If you were to travel to Africa or most of Asia, these perspectives would not exist, and those perspective might look much more what we would deem “traditional.” We are molded and shaped by the culture around us, or as Paul said in Romans 12:2, “conformed to the patterns of this world.”)
The development of this perspective historically and philosophically is much more extensive than I can catalog here. But, given that this perspective is the way we as westerners now think, our default operating system, it makes it much easier to understand why we think of self as something we define for ourselves and have every right to do.
The sexual revolution added a layer of complexity to this change. The revolution was not brought on by any one thing, but by variety of complex factors, as Trueman notes, among others: the advent of “the pill,” which made it easy to separate sex from procreation; the readily-available access to sexual imagery and discussion in the media, through Playboy, Cosmopolitan; the rise of no-fault divorce, which rendered marriage a sentimental bond and transactional relationship; the Internet, which made access to pornography ubiquitous and removed its associated embarrassment; and television and movies, which represented sex as a cost-free option.
This revolution rendered sex, and how we talk about sex, free from the restrictions of cultural mores, and one more way we are able to look inside ourselves to express ourselves and our identities. It made possible joining sexual orientation and gender identity to the myriad of ways I now look inside myself to find my truth, and the way society around us obligates others to uncritically accept, affirm, and support that “truth.”
As a follower of Jesus, we hopefully realize that in every historical era, our people have been called to live lives and think thoughts differently from the world around us. When, as Paul says in Romans 12:2, we are “transformed by the renewing of our minds,” God gives us a regenerated mind through the power of the Holy Spirit as we press into Him, are made holy and sanctified, and begin living and seeing things differently. This new way of seeing life, through His lens and the way He created us and the world around us to be, has several implications when looking at sex and gender identity.
First, we’re called to holiness. The biblical sexual ethos involves much more than sexual orientation and gender identity. Satan and our own sin always tempt us to, as Augustine described, draw our loves and desires inward. Whether it’s lust, infidelity, pornography, or the myriad other ways we sin in these areas, we have to ask the Lord to show us where repentance is necessary and then, through the power of the Holy Spirit, live lives of holiness. This means celibacy outside marriage between men and women, and celibacy inside marriage with those who aren’t our spouses, whether through actual or virtual relationships. As always, transformation begins in our hearts, and our greatest testimony is living out this ethos we profess with integrity.
Second, we’re called to resist the empty philosophies of the age, to help others see them, and to draw them to a better way of life. This is not possible through reason or powerful apologetics. It requires a new heart and mind, only possible through the Spirit. People don’t generally see life through a distorted lens on any issue, including this one, because they have nefariously decided to deny the truth, but because they’ve uncritically accepted a lie. As bringers of shalom and light in the world, God has given us the mission of reconciliation, to love and to gently persuade others in a loving relationship with Jesus, to be filled with a Holy Spirit who changes thoughts and minds. He also calls us to exhort and encourage those who already proclaim Christ to resist the philosophies of this age, to not be conformed to the patterns of the world.
Most of the people I know who are believers and have waffled on what God says about sex and marriage have done so for several reasons: they either have someone they love dearly who has struggled with these issues and they have found acceptance and affirmation to be preferable to risk losing that relationship; or, they’ve justified it as a way to free themselves from their own struggles, tired of fighting or feeling lonely or isolated; or, they have been pressured by our culture to be relevant or live a safer, more culturally-comfortable life by embracing its mores.
These temptations are as old as humanity, as the tempter who deceives us. It’s difficult to be different, to follow Jesus in any age, and to be distinct in this way is one of the major challenges of our age. Jesus promises trouble to His people, and bearing the mark of being a cultural oddity, if not an offense, is the trouble of this age. But, He also promises ultimate deliverance, and we’re called to greater faithfulness and to trust in His provision (John 16:33). As Russell Moore ironically notes, we believe in things that are much more “outrageous” than our views on sex: that a man rose from the dead, for instance. Being a Christian has always meant seeing the world differently, and paying the price for it when necessary.
Finally, as the Church, we should love and be more welcoming to our family and friends who struggle with sexual issues, these and others, than anyone. “Welcoming” is not “affirming,” because love of children, spouses, friends, and extended family never carries with it uncritical acceptance of not living truthfully, healthy, or well. Our lack of loving well runs the risk of pushing away more than drawing near. We have to be better at this, and that begins with me.
A long blog, but a complex issue and one with no easy answers. Thank God He has given us the power that conquered death itself to meet the challenges of this and every age, and He’s called us to be His hands and voice in the age He’s given us now. The answer is always genuine, God-breathed love.