By Jason Yeatts
We, as a society and a church, have unconsciously adopted an understanding of sexuality that does more harm than good. I’m not talking about our culture’s growing acceptance of homosexuality, but our acceptance of the idea of homosexuality. The two are quite different. We have picked up a language about sex that both perpetuates a wrong view of human identity and hinders the path of Christian discipleship. To understand how this has happened, we must first look at the human heart.
When Scriptures declare, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10) and “the fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, turning a person from the snares of death” (Proverbs 14:27), they reveal a deep truth about our hearts. It did not take long in the Garden of Eden for the human heart to pursue its own path. The very first temptation was to be wise in order to be like God. Adam and Eve rejected the fear of the Lord and sought control over their lives. Do we still not desire to be God?
Isolated and Empty
In the wake of the fall, our hearts lay broken, cut off from our creator. Isolated and empty, we search for life in a world where there is no life. Our minds hunt for rationalizations and theories that can uphold the lie that we are God. Dallas Willard summarizes well our condition: “When the light of the fundamental truth and reality, God, is put out in the heart and the soul, the intellect becomes dysfunctional, trying to devise a ‘truth’ that will be compatible with the basic falsehood that man is god.”1
Our bodies then follow our hearts and minds into darkness, and we use them to display our power and control. We drill into our flesh the lie that we are God. Our tongues and eyes become servants of our deceived hearts, and we eventually give ourselves over to every kind of bodily pleasure.
Many of us learn to regulate these bodily urges, but if we are honest, we must admit that sin is never far from the surface. Anger, rage, gluttony, and sexual impurity can emerge very quickly. This is what Paul was talking about when he wrote: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. . . . Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another” (Romans 1:21, 24).
The truth is that pleasure has been corrupted—“bent,” as C.S. Lewis describes it. Willard says our basic desires have been allowed to run a rebellious course in our bodies, and they now serve as “the primary hosts of sin in our personalities.”2 We have learned in this world to gratify the flesh by pursuing bodily sensations. This is nothing short of sin reigning in our bodies.
Is it any wonder, then, that the pursuit of pleasure usually moves toward sex? Sex more than other activity gives us the most intense bodily pleasure. For many people, it is the king of all pleasures. This is why throughout human history, people have devised elaborate and complex philosophies as a way to justify their sexual behavior. There is no end to the intellectual gymnastics men and women will play to control their bodies and use them as they want.
We should not be surprised, then, that Paul warned against “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (Colossians 2:8). We must remember that the human mind is broken in isolation from God, and it is always on the hunt for a worldview that will uphold the lie that we are God.
The Problem with “Sexual Identity”
This brings me to sexuality. Over the last century we have adopted a language about sex that has seeped into every crevasse of our lives. It has grown into such a well-developed theory that many of us have accepted it as natural and obvious. What I’m talking about is the language of sexual identity, which uses the terms homosexual and heterosexual as markers of sexual orientation.
On one level, these terms refer to sexual behavior. I have no problem when they are used this way. Who can deny that sexual activity between two men or two women is homosexual? Or that sexual activity between a man and a woman is heterosexual?
What I’m concerned about is the cultural shift from sexual behavior to sexual identity that happened about a century ago. The effect is that today we regularly apply the terms homosexual and heterosexual to a person, not a behavior.
In his groundbreaking history of male gay culture in New York City, prominent historian George Chancey (who is also a leading gay rights advocate) tracks this shift from sexual behavior to sexual identity. He shows that by the turn of the 20th century there was a widespread “consolidation of sexuality itself as a central component of identity.”3 Sexuality became who we are, not what we do. This intellectual and cultural move provided millions of men and women a strong justification to use their bodies as they desired: if I am my sexuality, then my body must follow my identity.
I believe the language of sexual identity today supplies hundreds of millions of people the “truth” they need to justify the falsehood that man is God. It allows them to reason that if their personhood is fundamentally tied to their sexual orientation, then their sexual behavior is simply a natural, God-ordained outflow of who they are.
The hard truth is that we, as Christians, have accepted this language and thus have given credence to the idea that humans are first and foremost sexual beings. Few of us would say a person is born homosexual. But when we say people are born heterosexual we are actually affirming the idea that sexual identity is at the root of our personality.
Not surprisingly, we have seen an unprecedented increase in sexual immorality. Over the past century, this false view of human identity has mixed with an explosion of technological advances to create a culture and economy saturated in sex.
The scary part is it has seemed so natural to so many. Lauren Winner is correct when she writes, “Much of what we say about sex in public is, simply, false. And when we tell falsehoods about sex, and listen to falsehoods about sex, we wind up living falsehoods about sex.”4
A Different Starting Place
So where does discipleship fit in all of this? Only in Jesus can we find hope in our present situation. Only in the gospel can we get a clear picture of who we are and what we are supposed to be.
Rather than start with our sexual identity, let us start with our human condition. Rather than categorize ourselves as either homosexual or heterosexual, let us describe ourselves as a broken people—a people isolated from our creator. Let us understand our heart’s tendency to want to be God. Let us understand our mind’s search for “truths” that will support our pride. Let us understand our body’s propensity to seek corrupt pleasure.
Then, and only then, will we understand our dire condition. Nothing about our hearts is worthy of following completely. We must find a more stable and trustworthy barometer. We need an absolute truth that we can commit to and follow. We need Jesus, who created everything in Heaven and on earth (Colossians 1:16).
It seems to me as followers of Jesus, we must, above all else, train ourselves in his way of life. Discipleship is nothing short of putting on the identity of our teacher. Even so, we must never forget that apart from Christ there is no limit to how far our hearts will spiral into darkness. We will grab any and every identity that allows us to gratify our bodily desires and promises to give us life. The good news, however, is that when we connect ourselves to Christ, who is the true vine, we will find life that will never wither or fade.
On the path of discipleship we no longer ask how to live like Jesus as heterosexuals. We no longer talk about Christian homosexuals or sexual orientation. Instead we celebrate and declare that we have no other identity than “disciple of Jesus,” and we live out of this one identity because it is our only identity. This will change everything—how we eat, speak, watch, and how we act sexually.
Paul made it clear when he wrote to the Colossians, “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (3:11). And because our life is now hidden with Christ in God, we stop offering our bodies to sin as instruments of wickedness; we now offer ourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life and offer every part of our bodies to him as instruments of righteousness (Colossians 3:3; Romans 6:13).
In the end, it is my hope that we, as the church, will move in a new direction when talking about sexuality. I believe sincerely that discipleship is the best way to recapture a correct and life-giving view of sex. When we put on Christ as our life, we correct our wayward thinking about human identity and sexuality, and we walk a path full of transformation, joy, and hope.
1Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2012).
2Dallas Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1999).
3George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994). Another article that influenced my thinking was Michael W. Hannon, “Against Heterosexuality,” First Things (March 2014).
4Lauren Winner, Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005).
Jason Yeatts serves as executive minister with Indian Creek Christian Church, Indianapolis, Indiana.