Living now as a celibate gay Christian, I have a unique story. I became a Christ-follower out of secular atheism a decade ago. I was a card-carrying romanticist (gay activist), signing up to sexual desire and the interior life as the ultimate source of transcendence and personal identity. I had no doctrine of the fall.

All I felt was good and to be affirmed. I was content to be Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the proverbial hill of western secularism. When I became a Christian in a pub after a radical love-encounter with God, I did not have the luxury to absent myself from the question of identity. I wasn’t able to disappear or easily belong in church cultures or hide my views on the controversial topics, because I lived them. I was visibly different. I was a Christian at church and yet I was gay – and I knew and loved many people and things in the gay community. I was still part of both, and yet gradually found I didn’t fully belong in either. Initially, I thought I was some strange anomaly, and yet I was actually becoming someone in Christ that, most people, including myself, hadn’t conceived of or thought possible.

This meant I stuck out like a sore thumb, even at times when I’ve wanted to simply belong or disappear from the fraught question. I’ve had boyfriends as a Christian; I’ve then chosen celibacy (you can read my journey in my book A War of Loves). I’ve changed my views on marriage in the church. This struggle for a holistic Christian identity has given me a blessed closeness to Jesus, who had nowhere to lay His head and who, because of His identity as the Son of God, was hung up on a cross for the sin that stole our human wholeness and calls us to follow Him.

For me this has meant being torn, exhausted, wedged, broken, and hung up by the identity-dualism that has riven our western society apart. I am calling for a new space to be created, a safe space to reclaim a holistic view of our human identity before God. If I’m honest, it’s been very hard, but I feel called to be a part of the change I’ve needed myself to flourish in the church. I have had sleepless nights in tears, watching our ugly culture war form vengeful factions, calling for me to either embrace this full-scale” or erase this part of yourself now”, often with the threat of exclusion. Both of these quick impulses have led me down paths that have been very unhealthy and that I’ve resisted out-right. 

"He is the Lord of our whole human existence, including that of LGBTQI people."

They’ve threatened to pull me from the beauty of God’s love in Christ that saved me in that pub in Sydney’s gay quarter. I chose instead to trust in the gospel: my identity was found in the fact I was reckoned right with God, and included in His family, because of Jesus. They’ve also caused me to search for the deeper implications of the freedom I’ve found in Jesus, living in the tension between the reality of sin, the call to self-denial and the hope of self-transformation. I feel driven to recapture a holistic view of Christian identity, and I think it’s vital not just for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and intersex (LGBTQI)/same-sex attraction (SSA) people, but even more so, the rest of my family, the church and our witness to Christ.

Last month in Oxford, during a visit from pastor and theologian Timothy Keller, I was able to ask him whether Christians should stop saying That’s not your identity, Christ is”? He replied (and I paraphrase): Salvation is not self-erasure, but actually represents the demotion, transformation and flourishing of all aspects of one’s identity in Christ. I think this speaks well into the problem of dualism in the modern Christian world, which has allowed many in the church to miss the nuances required to engage with the underlying realities of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other background issues that true discipleship addresses and resists.

In my opinion, Keller’s comment reflects where the scriptures land. In the New Testament, we are given a very rich, non-reductive view of how we should understand human identity. We don’t find some dualism that deletes this or that aspect of human nature or experience, or solves the tension we experience, but God, in becoming human, said yes to all that He originally said was very beautiful or good” about the human frame, and outright no to our sinfulness. Both are experienced in the phenomenon of being human and are not separated out easily from one’s experience of same-sex attraction desire. Yet Jesus, God’s Word, takes on this same likeness of human nature, exemplifying to us how to find our identity in Yahweh, our Father in heaven, even when other idols or desires war for our hearts, and our human becoming.

"This struggle for a holistic Christian identity has given me a blessed closeness to Jesus."

Our ultimate identity is gloriously found in our Lord Jesus, to be revealed in our final glorification and bodily resurrection. Jesus’ lordship demotes, renegotiates and transforms other aspects of our identity, including our gender identity or sexuality and, yet, never erases them. He claims them for a greater fullness. He is the Lord of our whole human existence, including that of LGBTQI people. That is why when people say to me, Your sexuality isn’t your identity”, I gently respond: It’s not my ultimate identity, but it’s important to Jesus.” It’s a weakness and so as a Christian I see it as a gift – a lack that gives way to a greater existence, through which Jesus’ glory will be expressed in the future. And yet it is also a product of our human separation and alienation from the Creator. That is the holistic, Christian tension in which we live. We foretaste our wholeness, and yet we are still broken.

I think that listening to the experiences of people who live the question of identity, or even object to how its politics often play out, are vital to the renewal of the church, and its desire-life. In his recent work, A Conversation Waiting to Begin: The Churches and the Gay Controversy, Oliver O’Donovan, former Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford University, asks a fascinating question: Can gay Christians present themselves as the bearers of an experience of the human that is, at the very least, of irreplaceable importance for our understanding of our own times?” Further, he says: There is room here for a seriously interesting discussion among gay people which will be instructive to us all… such a debate among gays, if conducted frankly and in public, will provide the essential core reflection, helping the rest of us feel our way towards an understanding of the dynamic of the experience and a sense of how the good news may bear most importantly on it.”

O’Donovan calls for a deeper repentance – a change of mind – in the church. God isn’t just calling for an understanding of being gay, but for an entire upheaval of how we understand identity – being human before God. This includes and can find its departure in understanding the unique ways we are embodied. We don’t choose our embodiment, but we choose what to do with it and the ethic with which to live it out. Our society’s inward turn towards our sexual or gender identities as the ultimate source of identity is worrying, even at times outright idolatrous. However, by the same token, the fear that surrounds the topic in the church, which inspires the deleterious snap-reaction that demands the erasure of parts of one’s good but fallen humanity is generating a hurtful vacuum that will cause many to seek for answers outside the church. Faith, then, calls us to trust Jesus with all of our fallen and yet beautiful humanity, and the hope of resurrection calls us to a greater end in Christ that will one day vindicate and transcend these identities. This is vital to resist the idols that drive identity politics and, thus, threaten the universal humanity that the gospel restores. 

O’Donovan ends his reflections in the Pilling Report, with this fascinating assertion, which I think reflects a vitally holistic view of identity: If Christianity has any saving message, it is that you may be free from the constraints of your identities.” Not erasure, not outright affirmation, but hope that rejoices in the fact that our earthly identities will be vindicated, transformed and give way to a greater horizon of human being in Christ. The obedience grace has wrought in our good but fallen bodies and the reorientation of our sinful desires that resist God’s will in our hearts, through the Holy Spirit’s power, matter for eternity. In Christian ministry, we are to teach others to groan for and desire this freedom from the constraints of our identities, and yet to learn, as disciples, to live faithfully in them, praying as Christ did in Gethsemane, Abba, not my will but yours be done.”