Gender and Sexual Identity: We Need a Fresh Perspective for Our People
For many years the intersection of gay identity and Christian identity in the United States was a virtual no-man’s land. Nate Collins is one of the more recent voices bridging that gap with his new book All But Invisible.
While similarly-focused books emphasize the biblical and theological issues surrounding faith, gender, and sexuality, Collins provides a renewed vision of gospel flourishing for LGBT people by speaking from his own experience as a gay man in a mixed-orientation marriage.
Collins is committed to helping churches include LGBT people in the family life of the church. But first, he addresses two big-picture problems facing Christians who want to explore identity questions at the intersection of faith, gender, and sexuality.
1) Vision Problem: An Abundant Life for LGBT People?
This first problem is a fundamental issue, because “in general, evangelical Christians lack a clear vision of what the abundant life that Christ promises his followers might look like for gay people” (21).
How can gay people flourish alongside their brothers and sisters within the believing community? How does it look for gay and straight people to find and experience the abundant life together?
At the heart of Collins’s vision is Christ’s own vision: discipleship, and the spiritual life of the local church. Yet Collins contends “some churches are not lifegiving places for gay people who are in need of gospel community” (22). He lists three reasons for this vision problem:
- A lack of ability or willingness by the church to be the hands and feet of Christ by cultivating loving, mutually fulfilling relationships with gay people in our churches.
- A sinful double standard and imbalance when it comes to other sins, such as greed, and the hypocrisy of singling out the sin of homosexuality.
- A failed witness, where many gay people don’t see the church as the shining city on a hill it’s supposed to be.
Collins reminds us that “nobody experiences the beautiful bride as a perfectly pure and holy bride”—which is why it’s so important that we identify the vision problem and its related difficulties” (23) for the sake of LGBT peoples’ discipleship.
2) Idea Problem: Complex Questions for LGBT Ethics
Then there is the idea problem, where “Western evangelical theological discussions about gender and sexuality typically start with clear-cut propositions about marriage and sexual ethics that are balanced on a flimsy tripod named discipleship” (23–24). Two practices illustrate.
The first practice is how Christians have approached dividing the topic into three components: behavior, attraction, and identity.
- The first group considers homosexuality as sexual behavior between members of the same gender.
- Secondly, “Christian psychologists often describe same-sex attractions that are strong, durable, and persistent as constituting a homosexual orientation” (25).
- Finally, identity labels are often used for orientation, which can “disempower and marginalize individuals who are not able to live up to cultural gender expectations” (25-26).
The second practice manifests itself in the distinction between external behavior and internal desire, which unhelpfully blurs the boundaries between behavior, attraction, and identity.
The danger of ignoring the blurred boundaries becomes especially real when we try to answer the question, What is it about being gay that is sin or sinful? If “practicing homosexuality” (as the TNIV translates 1 Cor. 6:9) is sinful, what exactly does that refer to? (27)
Collins points out that answers to these questions are complex, not simplistic, and often our answers are weighted by assumptions, which cause problems.
A Way Forward through These Problems
Collins’ book works through these problems in this particular order—first vision, then idea—because this is the order in which the church will find a way forward through these problems. His book fleshes out how to solve the two problems, but here are two ideas:
- “The best thing we can do to begin solving the vision problem is to focus our efforts on helping the church to be a place where gay and lesbian men and women can discover the abundant life that the gospel promises them” (28).
- When we solve the vision problem then we can solve the idea problem: “we can pursue a deeper understanding of the concepts and experiences that gay people have used to understand themselves.” Then we can “wrestle with these new perspectives and learn how to make sense of the lived experiences of gay people in ways that are faithful to Scripture but also are meaningful to them” (28).
It’s only after solving these twin problems inside the church—the vision to care for LGBT people; understanding the lived experience of LGBT people—that “we can set our sights on our witness to [the] world with greater boldness” (28).
Preston Sprinkle says of All But Invisible: “Collins asks questions and develops fresh categories regarding orientation and identity, and he does so in a thorough yet accessible way.”
Read Collins’ book yourself to see why Sprinkle says, “This truly is a valuable contribution to the discussion and not just yet another book to be thrown on the pile of LGBTQ books.”
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