Sexuality remains one of the most sensitive and yet "hot-button" issues within our culture and among Christians today. Such a controversial issue features a lot of passion and debate regarding the surface level issues of proper and improper forms of sexuality, and in such an environment, digging deeper and finding a Biblically centered and balanced perspective can be challenging. Nevertheless, the Scriptures do provide such a view and a robust theology of sexuality: human sexuality is the physical shadow of the spiritual reality which we are to seek in communion with God in Christ (Genesis 1:26-27, 2:24, John 17:20-24, Ephesians 5:31-32). Sex is part of God's good creation, and therefore it can be good (Genesis 1:31).
While God made the creation good, sin has since entered the world. Humans have been corrupted by sin in their thoughts, feelings, and actions, and the creation is now subject to futility (Genesis 3:1-15, Romans 5:12-18, 8:19-23). People reject their Creator and find ways of bowing down to the creation, taking pleasure in counterfeit gods rather than serving the One True God (Romans 1:18-25). As it has happened in general with the creation, so it is with sexuality as well: consciously or unconsciously, people have rejected holy, fulfilling sexuality and have instead set up counterfeit forms of sexuality after which they seek fulfillment. Such forms of sexuality are "counterfeit" because are false, claiming to represent true sexuality but without the wholeness, holiness, and appreciation of true intimacy in mind, body, and soul which comes with the type of sexuality God established and provided for mankind. These counterfeit forms of sexuality represent the distortion of human sexuality into the various types of perversions (in every sense of the word) which we see peddled in modern society. The main forms of counterfeit sexuality include sexuality as identity, sexuality as reduced to animal impulse, and sexuality as god; for our purposes at this time, let us consider how establishing sexuality as a principal marker of identity leads to a counterfeit sexuality.
Identity remains a complex phenomenon. Each one of us has many identity markers, including gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, class, language, religion, generation, point of geographical origin and/or present geographical location, profession, hobbies, professional/sports/etc. affiliations, as well as sexual predilections. While all such identity markers are equally true of us, we nevertheless privilege certain markers over others when we consider who we are in relation to other people. Each person, whether consciously or unconsciously, prioritizes the relative "importance" of the different identity markers which makes up his or her existence. While many factors may influence this prioritization, it remains a free-will choice. We choose whether we will consider our gender identity over our national identity, our class identity over our linguistic identity, and so on and so forth. We tend to understand our place, our efforts, and our context in terms of the identity markers we have deemed most important in our lives, less so those we have chosen to consider less important. That narrative will change based on which aspects are deemed more important than others; this is how two people who share many identity markers may nevertheless see themselves very differently.
There is no doubt that we are all shaped by our identity, but we are the ones who decide what really defines who we are as human beings. In theory, we could take any physical aspect of our bodies, any work we do, any practice in which we participate, anything we believe is true, and center our identity around it. This is why Jesus constantly exhorts Christians to prioritize their relationship with God as primary: if our primary identity marker is that of being a servant of God, the proper attitudes regarding ourselves and our conduct as well as how we treat other people will naturally follow (Matthew 6:33, Galatians 2:20, etc.). If the primary aspect in our existence is our faith in God, all things will flow from our faith; if the primary aspect of our existence is another identity marker, all things will flow from it.
Therefore, it is possible to define ourselves in terms of our sexuality. We can understand all things we feel, think, say, and do in terms of our sexual impulses. Yet is this a good idea? What do the Scriptures teach?
First and foremost, we must note that the Scriptures never define anyone by their sexuality. No one in the Bible is called a heterosexual, homosexual, or asexual (in 1 Corinthians 6:9, the term sometimes translated "homosexual" is the Greek arsenokoitai, defined as "one who lies with a man as with a woman," reinforcing our premise). In the Bible, no one is their sexuality. Instead, people have sexual impulses, desires, and urges, and decide whether and how they will act upon them. Therefore, in the Bible, sexuality is never reckoned as a form of identity; sex involves the behavior of individuals, however appropriate or inappropriate.
This is not some strange concept; for most of human history, people have understood how sexuality involves practice and is not a form of identity. Ancient Greek men engaged in sexual behavior with young boys as well as women, and held men who only had sex with men in contempt; they would never define themselves as "homosexual" because at times they participated in homosexual behaviors. This type of behavior, while sinful, was not unknown in many societies. It is only in the Victorian era when people start thinking of sex as not just behavior in which they participate but as an expression of their identity. The gap between sex as "something I do" and "something I am" may seem slight but its consequences are many and significant.
When the modern understanding of sexuality as identity is paired with the equally modern obsession with sex as an idol, one's sexual identity easily becomes either the primary or one of the primary identity marker(s). Sexual identity becomes a toxic primary identity marker, because everything then becomes sexualized. A person for whom their sexual identity is one of their primary forms of identity defines their lives by how well their sexual life is going. Such a one will view others primarily in terms of their sexual desirability and availability. It is easy for sex to run their lives, reducing their humanity (and everyone else's humanity) down to the animalistic sexual lust, enslaved to lasciviousness at least and sexually deviant behavior at worst (cf. Galatians 5:19). This is no way to live!
For that matter, sexuality will be privileged as a form of identity only by a society obsessed by sexuality. This is evident in the common response to anyone who might actually decide to live asexually. Those who choose to live asexually are most often considered freakish by both "heterosexuals" and "homosexuals," (sadly) by many professing Christianity as well as those who reject Christianity. The common expectation is that every adult of the age of consent should be actively participating in some form of sexuality, and if they are not, their lives are somehow not complete or fulfilled. In such an environment, nothing seems more foolish than both Jesus' and Paul's commendations of the asexual life devoted to God and His purposes (Matthew 19:12, 1 Corinthians 7:6-7, 25-38). The existence of such people exposes the limitation of the paradigm of sexuality as identity since they are not practicing any form of sexuality. This is not a problem limited to the world: even within the church, those who are single often find themselves under constant pressure by fellow Christians to get married, and not a few of the errant doctrines regarding divorce and remarriage stem from wholesale acceptance of the premise that we "are" our sexuality and it is therefore "unjust" to expect such sexuality to not be expressed.
This leads us to one of the major conflicts in the "culture war": homosexuality. Those advancing the cause of acceptance of homosexual behavior have done well at convincing everyone that since sexuality is a form of identity, to do anything to discourage people with homosexual desires to not act on those desires is unjust, immoral, and highly discriminatory. The claim that acceptance of homosexual behavior is a civil rights issue, akin to equal rights for African-Americans or women can only be legitimized in an environment in which sexuality is accepted as a form of identity. This premise may be more pernicious than many think. A lot of young people experience different desires as their developing brains are going through puberty; they may have a fleeting time in their lives when they might feel attracted to members of their own gender. In an environment where sexuality is understood in terms of behavior, involving desires which we choose to act upon or not, such may either lead to (proper) rejection of such desires and a refusal to act upon them or it may lead to (improper and immoral) "experimentation," but of the sort that goes no further, and the person will later behave according to a proper channeling of desire (cf. Matthew 19:4-6). But in an environment declaring that sexuality is identity, such a young person may believe that they are now "homosexual" because they have experienced some of those desires and might begin shaping their identity around that premise and thus, by all accounts, "become" homosexual. How many people who practice homosexuality in America do so because they have bought into the premise that one "is" their sexual behavior?
We do well to understand how sexuality is not identity. Think about it: do we want to think of an infant or a small child as being "heterosexual," "homosexual," "bisexual," or any other kind of "-sexual"? How can deviant forms of "heterosexual" behavior, like adultery and polygamy, be considered as forms of identity? And what about those who practice pedophilia, necrophilia, bestiality, or other sexual practices which are (at the time of this writing) still generally confessed to be deviant? How is their sexuality any more or less a part of their identity than anyone else's? And why should any of us define ourselves by our sexual behavior or the lack thereof? There is much more to life than sex, and the value of a person's contributions to society should not be inherently measured by their sexual predilections.
We do well to recognize that sexuality involves the sexual desires, urges, and impulses and how we choose whether and how we will express them. Sex is behavior just like every other form of behavior: we are under no more or less compulsion to express sexual desire than we are to express any other desire we may have. Sexual desire is just like all other desires: there are proper ways to express the desire, and there are improper ways to do so as well (cf. Romans 1:18-32, James 1:12-15). Sexual behavior does have consequences; our lives are shaped in many ways by our sexual behavior and how that sexual behavior either connects us with that one special person of the opposite sex, allowing for that intimacy which is a shadow of the spiritual reality of the communion we are to share with God, or it is disfigured by improper usage, the sinning against the body, denigrating that which was made in the image of God down to the mere satisfaction of a physical impulse (Genesis 2:24, Romans 1:18-32, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Ephesians 5:32-33). But just because our sexual behavior affects who we are does not mean that we somehow "become" our sexual behavior, or that we should see ourselves in terms of our sexual behavior. If we believe in God and Jesus His Son, we "are" to be Christians, primarily identifying ourselves as His followers, defining ourselves in terms of the image of Jesus, privileging our relationship in Christ above all others (Matthew 6:33, Romans 8:29, Galatians 2:20). Sexuality as identity is a counterfeit form of sexuality, tempting in principle, but reducing all of us to be defined not in terms of our contributions to society and well-being but by what we do (or don't do) in the bedroom. Let us affirm God's view and understanding of sexuality and reject all counterfeit forms of sexuality peddled in the world!
Ethan R. Longhenry