This article was originally published in Evangelicals Now.
What does it mean to have our identities rooted ‘in Christ’? This question has perhaps never been more relevant in a world which has an increasingly fragmented understanding of identity, as people are encouraged to embrace fluidity in both their gender identity and sexual orientation. So how can Christians respond to these changes with compassion whilst remaining faithful to Scripture?
This was the question addressed at the Identity in Christ conference hosted by ‘Living Out’ on 21 June in London’s Emmanuel Centre. Around 600 people were in attendance to hear Dr Tim Keller, the well-known former Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, and his wife Kathy, engage with these complex issues of gender and sexual identity.
Culture and Identity
In the first two sessions of the day, Keller outlined two key questions: firstly, where do we derive our sense of ‘self’?; and secondly, where do we get our sense of worth? In today’s postmodern culture, the individual is encouraged to completely disregard external moral values and instead embrace only “what’s true for me.” The idea is therefore to “follow your heart” without the need to find your identity in any values other than your own.
There are, however, significant problems with this individualistic sense of identity. It’s incredibly fragile as only the individual can decide if he or she is validated. And this is troubling because, as Keller said, “We are irreducible relational beings, we can’t validate ourselves.” Our sense of self-worth must be rooted in something, someone, outside of us. Indeed, only Christ himself can provide a secure foundation for true validation.
Christ and Identity
In contrast to this individualistic understanding is the ‘gospel identity,’ which releases us from the crushing burden of having to constantly validate ourselves. This is because Jesus is the one who earns salvation, not us. “The Christian identity,” Keller explained, “is the only identity that is received, not achieved.” We derive our sense of self and worth from the ultimate validator – the God of the universe, who loves us so much that he sacrificed his own Son to buy us back from the power of sin and death. Keller went on to show how the Bible gives us abundant resources for understanding our identity in Christ: we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), we are known by God (Galatians 4:9) and we are adopted as children of God (Ephesians 1:5).
Church and Identity
But how does this help us when we’re discussing gender identity or same sex relationships with our non-Christians friends? The third talk, given by Kathy Keller, addressed this question. She shared some great pieces of practical advice, especially the counsel that when having a conversation about gender or sexual identity with non-Christians, we must first discuss their need for salvation before any other issues are focussed on. There was also an awareness that only the love of Jesus is able to displace the temptations of sin. “When the love of Christ seizes you,” Kathy said, quoting Thomas Chalmers, “everything else is demoted and ultimately destroyed.” She also helpfully encouraged the Church to see that homosexual sex is not isolated in the Bible: it is almost always discussed in the context of other kinds of forbidden sexual activity, such as sex outside of marriage or pornography.
Whilst the sessions with both Tim and Kathy Keller were invaluable, a particular highlight of the conference was the sharing of testimonies by members of the ‘Living Out’ team. We were introduced to Anne, a woman whose decision to follow Jesus meant breaking up with her girlfriend and letting go of her gay identity. For Anne, though, the rewards more than made up for the cost. “I have something far more precious,” she said, “I’m a daughter of the King.” These personal stories emphasised the fact that the questions concerning gender or sexual orientation are not mere ‘issues’ for the Church to discuss, but represent a daily struggle that many godly people must faithfully endure.
Some of the insights shared at ‘Identity in Christ’ may not have been entirely new, but it was incredibly helpful to hear them presented together over the course of one day. As Christians, we need to have a deeper understanding of both how our surrounding culture seeks to shape us, and how the gospel transforms us. This is necessary if we want to be more effective in caring for both Christians and non-Christians, whatever their particular struggles may be.
Recordings from the ‘Identity in Christ’ conference will be made available at www.livingout.org.
Michael Shaw is the Editor of Cornerstone Network. He was formerly a Broadcast Journalist and Associate Producer at the BBC, and is now studying Theology at Oxford University. You can follow him on Twitter here.