The Church: Its Mission & Remaining Questions
[Gene Burrus (M.Div.) is our blogger for the month of September and this is his fifth post. Gene is a Ph.D. student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is studying pastoral theology and researching soul care issues related to sexuality and gender. You can follow him on Twitter @leburrus.]
Let’s pick up where we left off: union with Christ at the center of every Christian’s identity, regardless of orientation. And, remember this is the Jesus of the Christian tradition—the Jesus who calls all of us to credosexuality. Now, let’s imagine a Christian’s identity as three concentric circles all expanding from a center. Union with Christ and the ordinance or sacrament of baptism is at the center of the circle. This isn’t just a religious identity; this identity is pervasive and holistic, integrated into every part of life.
Now, let’s consider the second circle that extends out from the first. This second circle is group membership. So, in what group do Christians belong? The group membership identity of any Christian is properly in the church—specifically, the local church. For Christians I think union with Christ and group membership in his body, the church, are necessarily basic to a Christian’s identity.
This is not dissimilar from John’s train of thought in 1 John 4. We are first and foremost joined to God by Christ in love. A corollary is that Christians are joined to each other in familial love. What salvation exerts upon us deconstructs the divisions of ethnicity, social class, and gender to form a new, gloriously solidified group—the church (Gal. 3:28). How could a Christian belong to the gay community more than he or she belongs to the church? At this level of identity there is neither gay nor straight—we’re all credosexuals. Otherwise, the sexual identity framework serves as a means of division devised not by some dubious group behind the ‘gay agenda’ but by the historic enemy of the church.
But, this shouldn’t mean other social identities and categories don’t exist, they just can’t be logically prior to identity with Christ and his church. We’re in Christ before we’re sexual majorities or minorities. But what about these other social identities; what about sexual identities? Christians don’t live of the world, but they do live in it. We may speak Christianese but we are limited to the ever-changing linguistic constructs that help us name the world around us and the experiences within us.
A group is still emerging within Western Christianity who identify themselves as celibate gay Christians. So, do they rightfully gay-identify? Is it helpful? Maybe. Maybe this kind of identity is a third concentric circle that I’ll call a cultural identity, or a missional identity. Remember, the surface area of this identity does not extend to the center of a person’s core self-concept. It’s a step behind his or her group membership in the church. And it’s disposable, because ultimately sexual orientation is only as salient as its discussion within a culture. It is not as essential as gender or ethnicity. But, that doesn’t mean that the word ‘gay’ can’t describe one’s experience in a fallen world, especially for the purposes of honest self-disclosure in a culture where ‘gay’ probably just denotes same-sex attraction. But, Christian gay and secular gay rightfully encompass very different sexual ethics.
If there was a Christian FDA for sexual identities I think the gay Christian identity would still be in clinical trials. There are a few side effects to consider. If Christ and his community are not the first two concentric circles, will a gay Christian be able to flourish with a biblical sexual ethic? I think not. Also, a gay identity might bias social interactions in the church as Christians are distanced by sexual identities. And, Gay Christians could take on minority social roles instead of being sexual minorities by description alone. And, I think we’re still waiting for there to be enough celibate gay Christians in the church so that the word ‘gay’ itself connotes only attraction, not sexual behavior.
The challenges that sexual identity bring to Christian psychology and the Christian church abound. So, I hope you, the reader will consider how you can think more about this topic (actually these people!), become an advocate for the sexual minorities in the church who struggle with the meaning of their attractions, and further advance the mission of the church by teaching other Christians how to compassionately relate to sexual minorities.