Pride of Place

Perhaps it is a bad idea for Christians to make their temptations their identity.

During the latter part of 2017 and the first half of 2018, I participated in a year-long training program in Christian apologetics. Over the course of that year, all of the participants (around 120) read and interacted with over 5000 pages on a variety of related subjects. We did regular video conferences with, in many cases, the authors of the books we were reading. And we had quarterly face-to-face meetings in various venues around the country.

The reading list contained several books by men who had lived part of their life actively engaging in homosexual sex, but who had come to Christ and put their earlier pursuits behind them. Often their stories were poignant and moving, and their clear understanding of the contrast between following Christ and their earlier pursuits was unambiguous. But after reading two or three of these books, I started detecting a common undercurrent that I found odd and a little disturbing.

In almost every case, to greater and lesser degrees, these writers subtly viewed their decision to forego homosexual pursuits as something of a sacrifice or, at least, their life of celibacy was something of a sacrifice, and carried implications for how they viewed the rest of the church. The narrative that kept peeking out of these memoirs went something like this (I paraphrase):

I have a history of disordered sexual interests. But in coming to Christ, I set those sexual interests aside. So since I've sacrificed in this way, I think the church needs to de-emphasize the fruit of more ordered sexual interests (e.g. marriage and the family) and organize its social life more in keeping with my own singleness and celibacy.

To be completely fair, these themes were never stated quite so baldly in any of these books. But each of the ideas in the preceding paragraph appeared frequently enough in each individual book that, after reading enough of this genre, a consistent narrative arc began to emerge.

Somewhere along the way during my apologetics program, it occurred to me that there was a certain kind of irony in the idea of writing a book that on the one hand says, "I have decided to take my focus off my own disordered sexual interests and make Christ the center of my life", while on the other hand saying, "I think that Christ's church should consider reorganizing itself around people like me."

By framing the narrative along these lines, what the authors have done (I doubt this is conscious or intentional) is to make their disordered sexual past the lens through which they view their faith and relationships in the body of Christ going forward.

This seems to me to be...unwise.

There is an energetic contemporary discussion taking place among some Christians regarding the appropriateness of a Christian identifying himself as a "gay Christian". The general idea behind this discussion, I think, is along the lines of the various books I read in the apologetics program I described earlier.  The point of the moniker "gay Christian", I gather, is to highlight that a person can be a Christian even if their sexual temptations continue to be drawn toward others of the same sex, so long as they have set aside those interests in favor of celibacy. (To be clear, there are also some who argue that it isn't necessary even to set aside those interests, so long as indulging them is only done in the context of "committed" relationships. But I'm not addressing that issue in this post.)

It seems to me that there is some fundamental missing-of-the-point in the desire to prepend "gay" to one's identification as a Christian. The desire to attach qualifiers to our Christian identity is questionable in any case. But to attach qualifiers that highlight our disordered appetites?

One is tempted to ask, "What other disordered interests are appropriate qualifiers to the name of 'Christian'?"  What about those who are covetous or gluttonous? What about greedy Christians? Or those who are often tempted to lie? No one, to my knowledge, is seriously proposing the expansion of linguistic modifiers to subsume all available ungodly temptations. There are reasons, I think, for this, and they overlap with the same animating spirit that has motivated the "coming out" social phenomenon of recent years.

Hopefully the reader sees where I'm going with this. Why would any Christian who, like the apostle Paul, considered those things that identified him before his commitment to Christ as "rubbish", want to re-identify himself with the very things that came before?

I suspect Carl Trueman has caught the scent of these issues in his book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. The centrality, in modern western culture, of "expressive individualism" and "psychological man" probably explains a lot. The Heritage Foundation defines "expressive individualism" this way:

Expressive individualism holds that human beings are defined by their individual psychological core, and that the purpose of life is allowing that core to find social expression in relationships.

Trueman says that those who hold to this view believe that the only path to an authentic life is to "come out" with one's inner self. The Christian view, of course, is that many aspects of our inner life are not things that should "come out" but should, rather, be mortified - not in the modern sense of embarrassment, but in the older sense of being put to death.

It may not be a good idea to prepend modifiers to our identity as Christians which emphasize those temptations we should instead be putting to death.

It's easy to imagine, after reading a number of homosexual writers, that homosexuality is something akin to a metastasized form of self-absorption - one in which a person becomes so self-oriented that even their sexual interests revolve around others who are substantially like themselves.  I hear echoes of this perspective in the discussion surrounding the idea of "gay Christians".  While the name "Christian" draws from, and points toward, the savior of the world, the modifier "gay" calls our attention back to the person describing himself as such.  It is hard to escape the fact that, when someone says he is a "gay Christian", he is giving himself and his residual appetites pride of place - in front of his identity in Christ. In this way our thoughts, which might otherwise have been about Jesus, are drawn back to the sexual interests of the person himself.

Believers who seem so eager to apply modifiers to their identities as Christians - modifiers which put themselves in the spotlight - should really reconsider.

There is a lesson to be learned, and a better path to be followed, which can be found in the response of John the baptizer when Jesus arrived on the scene:

"He must increase. I must decrease."

May those of us who follow Christ be eager to decrease, and to call the world's attention to Him, instead of to ourselves.

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