17 Jun 2021
On Fellowship, Authenticity, and Identity
His response surprised even me. He had asked how many were in the group. “Six?!” he exclaimed, his eyes wide with shock and dismay. I was inviting him to join a group of men who met regularly to share fellowship in the gospel and encouragement in the same lifelong sexual sin struggle as he. I had been the first person with whom he had ever been so honest. But a group was, for now, still too much. He was not yet ready for even a few more to know him that well.
By inviting him to express himself with open humility before a larger number of men, I was gently coaxing him into fellowship in the light with God and others (1 John 1:5–7). Without such fellowship, there is no gospel joy, no gospel transformation; fear and shame are both jail and jailor—especially for those who struggle with sexual sins and temptations. Far too often, the message they have received is that they will be rejected if they let anyone know that they even struggle with such things. Many know this through cruel experience. So they remain in hiding and isolation. Sin and darkness reign and grow in that place.
This is why Harvest USA strives to create an environment that encourages people to come into the light, to speak the hardest truth about themselves, to speak in community about the temptations and sins that have dominated their lives. And we believe that many churches still need to be encouraged to grow in this. We urge community in which both truth and mercy are undiminished. I see many churches making progress in this direction.
And yet, we do not view this simplistically as a pendulum that needs to swing to the other side. Yes, the Church must continue to grow in being a place where sin struggles of all kinds can be discussed and met with gospel mercy, gospel challenge, and gospel hope, not disgust, disdain, and condemnation. But as we make this progress, we need to be alert to some pitfalls along the way. I will describe two.
- The pitfall of God-less authenticity
We live in a culture that prizes a sort of brazen authenticity that is only occasionally corralled by, “TMI!” Our culture’s love for authenticity is not exactly the same thing as the fellowship we aspire to. In fact, it is quite different. Put simply, in our culture’s practice of authenticity, God is not in the audience. Our culture presupposes the non-existence of God. In this context, authenticity flows from the individual’s need to create meaning from within herself. Without a transcendent standard, without God, authenticity is unmoored from accountability. There is no aspect of confession, no sin, only honesty and freedom of expression.
We must resist this God-less authenticity. First, because its presupposition is false; God does exist, and we are accountable to him. But also, because the gospel—the good news—is that our accountability to God need not lead to condemnation. There is grace, redemption, and hope in Christ. It is largely because our world either does not know or does not believe this that it seeks an authenticity based on denying God’s existence.
- The pitfalls of “identifying”
In our culture, “identification” has become a common tool in the service of authenticity. So, for example, someone might “identify” as gay or some other subset of LGBTQ+. The idea is tricky to describe and evaluate, but some precision and clarity is necessary. Here is the relevant dictionary definition¹:
identify as: Assign (a particular characteristic or categorization) to oneself; describe oneself as belonging to (a particular category or group)
As defined here, especially in the first sense of assigning a characteristic to oneself, this is fairly common. Grammatically, it involves connecting a predicate adjective or a predicate nominative to ourselves—“I am blonde,” “I am a conservative,” “I am male.” But not every instance of saying something about self is “identifying as.” The second part of the definition adds the sense of placing ourselves in a category, class, or group. The idea of “identification” comes with pitfalls in two directions—one to the left and the other to the right, we might say.
Pitfall #1: Communicating the unstated assumptions of identity politics
It is the second part of the definition, placing oneself in a category or group, that has come to be used in what some call “identity politics.” Used in this way, identifying with a particular group generally implies a whole set of other unstated assertions about that group. Let me suggest a few of the unstated connections that often are implied in such identification:
a. This use of identity is generally claimed on the basis of a trait that is assumed to be indelible.
b. The connection of the group is not merely by commonness of trait but, rather, forms a distinct community with mutual belonging and purpose.
c. The group or class identified by that trait is assumed to have been subject to systematic persecution or oppression.
d. Therefore, as a corrective of c., both the trait and the community identified by it are to be affirmed and celebrated.
e. Lastly, a point which seems to go with the cumulative combining of the previous four: When identification is done in this “identity politics” way, it often represents a level of personal meaning and significance that places it at the core of the sense of self.
Perhaps you can already see how some of these, or perhaps all of them, would be a problem for a Christian if the trait that was the basis of the identification was a sinful condition. Viewing the trait as indelible conflicts with the gospel promise of ultimate glorification and current progressive transformation. A sense of mutual belonging and purpose with a distinct community might, if carefully defined and limited, be seen as a mission-field connection. But it is just as easy to imagine it becoming an alternative and competitor to the Church. As to points c. and d., while godly compassion will always seek to come near to suffering with healing and justice, it cannot do so by affirming or celebrating sin. Finally, no identification with any trait or with any category or group should compete with the gospel reality of what we are in Christ, variously described in the Scriptures.
These unstated implications of identification, as used in identity politics, are the reason why we at Harvest USA have preferred the term “same-sex attraction (SSA)” over terms like “gay” or “lesbian.” You’ll notice that there is no “S” in “LGBTQIA+.” The goal is not to have a different way to say the same thing; it is to avoid the pitfall of communicating those problematic assumptions listed above while encouraging unhindered openness and fellowship in the Lord.
However, this brings us back to the concern I started with, and the other pitfall…
Pitfall #2: Reacting against any language that sounds like identification in such a way that people are driven back into silence and isolation
Focusing so strongly on the issue of identification can inadvertently communicate that honest description of sin struggles is unsafe. Rather than the mercy of the gospel gently inviting self-disclosure and confession, a culture of shame and stigma encourages everyone to “play the game,” look good, and make sure nobody finds out what the real battle is in our hearts and minds. In order to love those who are struggling to come into the light, we may need to be less concerned with the terms used and more concerned with their hearts. That may require us to forego a discussion of terms of identity and the wisdom of using particular language, and instead prioritize discipleship in the gospel truths that counter all of the false implications that may be attached to their current vocabulary.
Also, we should keep in mind that outside of the world of identity politics, it is quite normal to “identify as,”—to assign a particular categorization to oneself or describe oneself as belonging to a certain category or group—while neither intending nor being heard to mean any of the unstated assertions listed above. It is even possible, if wisely subsumed in a gospel context, to do this with a sinful category. For instance, Paul can write, “The saying is trustworthy, and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15). He is displaying an extraordinary humility of self-expression, identifying not merely as “sinner” but, in the older versions, “chief of sinners.” And he encourages others to do the same. But Paul communicates none of the erroneous implications listed above. His freedom to identify as a sinner is firmly set in the context of redemption. His identification as chief of sinners does not share the same place in either his argument or his sense of self as does his identification as “an apostle of Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 1:1). No one reading Paul in context would think otherwise. His use of identity language here is subsumed under and serves the gospel: “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost [of sinners], Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16). Paul carefully and wisely uses language in a way that does not encourage people to remain in sin and darkness, but draws them from it to the mercy of Christ. Indeed, it would seem healthy for all of us to stand before the Lord and declare who we are apart from him, that he may declare to us who we are now in him.
Let us pray and strive for wisdom and humility as we call people out of darkness into fellowship in the light and into an identity in Christ which is eternal.
¹“identify.” Oxford’s Lexico.com. 2021. https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/identify (8 June 2021).