Identity is a Trojan Horse. Stop bringing it in behind the gates of the church

The word “identity” looks like such a gift to Christian thinkers and preachers hoping to help people answer the existential question of our age “who am I” in a way that brings people to defining their personhood in choosing to follow Jesus as Lord. But it’s a dangerously loaded term used in ways that mean it isn’t just ‘neutral’ gold to be plundered in order to preach Christ. It’s more like a golden calf, or, indeed, a Trojan Horse, bringing enemy soldiers behind the gates and allowing the Gospel and its claims about our personhood to be infiltrated by worldly ideas of self-definition through authentic choice, and the need for that choice to be performed and recognised by others.

The question “who am I” is only of ultimate significance for those who don’t like the answer you are given…. Or rather, the answer “you are given”… our concept of personhood, as Christians, starts with God as the creator and sustainer of life, in whom we live, and breathe, and have our being — the one who gives us as people in community and for community with himself, and others (the two great commands to “love God” and “love our neighbour as ourselves” are built from this reality. Our bodies and our gifts are given to us for a purpose outside our own definition and choice, and our responsibility (or vocation) is to receive our givenness and give ourselves to the giver, for his glory. This is true for all of us created in the image of God — we are to “give to God what is God’s” (that is, what has his image on it), and it is especially true for us captivated by Jesus, who are being transformed into his image, as his body.

This picture in Ephesians is utterly at odds with modern understandings of personhood — and especially with the notion of “identity” — that we are the ones in a position to answer the question “who am I” at all…

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” — Ephesians 4:11-13

You are not your own, as if your “identity” is yours to define — which probably takes some of the pressure off us as Christians as we keep being told to “define yourself” and live according to your desires; we are already defined from above, our language now simply rests in the ability to describe ourselves and our bodily participation in this given vocation.

The Presbyterian Church in America last week voted to prevent men who “identify” as gay or same sex attracted being ordained to church office. The Overture, which secured overwhelming support from General Assembly delegates, read:

“Officers in the Presbyterian Church in America must be above reproach in their walk and Christlike in their character. Those who profess an identity (such as, but not limited to, ‘gay Christian,’ ‘same-sex-attracted Christian,’ ‘homosexual Christian,’ or like terms) that undermines or contradicts their identity as new creations in Christ, either by denying the sinfulness of fallen desires (such as, but not limited to, same-sex attraction), or by denying the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, or by failing to pursue Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions are not qualified for ordained office.”

Eternity has published a report (by me) on the significance of this change for our denomination’s ability to pastor same sex attracted Christians (especially as this move is now a live conversation in Australian Presbyterian circles).

While I have significant concerns with the move by the Ad Interim Committee whose report on sexuality was the motivation for this change to flatten all attraction into lust or sexual desire, and with the resultant approach that sees sanctification for same sex attracted believers resting wholly in mortification of sinful desires, rather than in vivification of ones loves and desires as they are rightly ordered around the right love of God, his creations (including other people) made possible by the Spirit, I am also deeply concerned by the way “identity” is being treated as a shibboleth here as though it is a coherent theological category, not a psychological and sociological fusion invented in the 20th century that has become a profound and established part of our theological lexicon. I’ve unpacked the origins of the language of identity, and my concerns about its theological use, at length in this earlier post — but basically my issue is that the language of “identity” is almost always about self expression of “true” desire (psychology), and recognition by others (sociology) and attempts to make it a theological category almost always fail to account for both our givenness, and the constitutive (ontological) nature of our relationships to both God and others (family, community, ethnicity, body of Christ, etc).

Our own local denomination — the Presbyterian Church of Queensland — adopted a paper on sexuality that also brings the Trojan Horse of identity behind the gates of the church (while lauding the PCA’s Interim Report on sexuality, sharing its collapsing of the category of desire and lust into attraction (and “internal temptation”), and following its attempt to make a measured distinction between phenomenological/experiential use of language and ontological use of language around how people who experience same sex attraction and navigate life with that experience. It also falls into the trap (because it sees all ‘attraction’ as ‘sexual desire’ and so the disordered temptation that gives birth to lust) of reducing the call of the Gospel on a believer’s same sex attraction to “mortification” with no space for “vivification” around the rightly ordered love, brought about by the Spirit, of those created things we are attracted to and inclined to worship. It is a document defined by moral pessimism rather than Christian hope and newness of life, and what is possible for a re-created heart liberated from bondage to the flesh (basically, it reads Romans 7 and 8 wrong. I think).

I believe the paper to be deeply flawed, but found myself in a significant minority position here in Queensland, and I would suggest this is because we aren’t yet realising that we can’t decry the idolatrous expressive individualism of our age on the one hand, and incorporate the language of identity on the other, without playing the same “identity politics” game of self-actualisation through performance of our identity choices (and choosing what choices are legitimate to recognise or not within our social ‘identity’ group).

Here’s a few quotes from the Queensland paper:

“Indeed, fleshly notions of identity have assumed particular importance in our current cultural context. Rather than perceiving identity objectively, that is according to certain biological facts (biological essentialism) or biblically revealed purposes, it is perceived more subjectively, according to who we conceive or desire ourselves to be (psychological existentialism). It is assumed that our subjective desires make us who we are and are essential for our well-being.”


While the world creates identities and tribes based on gender, sexual desires, generations and political persuasions, the church derives its being and identity from Christ. Thus, we should strive to reject false labels and identities in our church communities, knowing each other as sinners who are intimately loved, forgiven and called to righteousness in Christ.

This idea that we “derive” rather than are “given” an “identity” is a Trojan horse with massive implications for how we take up the vocation of being creatures given and gifted by God for his purposes (not our own), in relationship networks that are deeply real and also given. The paper, of course (because it is by smart people) attempts to reclaim the word identity and ground it in these deep truths…

“In other words, in Christ we are a new creation with a new identity and orientation (2 Cor 5:17). When we receive God’s truth, we are no longer of the world, knowing ourselves according to its false categories or our own fleshly desires. We know ourselves as people drawn into the loving company of Father, Son and Spirit, belonging wholly to him as adopted children (John 14:16-21; 17:14-19) and able to worship and obey him as we were made to do. In Christ, we receive a new foundation for our identity that humbles our self-righteous egoism but also assures us we are infallibly secure in his justifying love.”

But if the word “gay” can’t be re-narrated, because it ‘always carries another meaning in the community of people listening to its use,’ and we want to insist on the dominance of that meaning — then neither can the word identity.

It’s worth noting that the members of the Ad Interim Committee that produced the Report taken up by the Overtures seem to be, in principle, against the way the overtures sought to legislate what they had described as a “wisdom issue” — recognising the complexity of language (and that it must work both ‘ontologically’ (almost prescriptively) and phenomenologically (almost descriptively) at the same time, for different audiences. The Overture represents a decision to be prescriptive, and see word use as ‘ontological’ — though it does, perhaps, give some wiggle room (and is significantly better than the first versions of the motions).

Kyle Keating, one of the same sex attracted members of the Interim Committee provided a thread on Twitter unpacking the consensus view of the Committee…

That report also made it clear that neither the Scriptures nor our Confession disqualify same-sex attracted men from holding office, a position which the whole committee held and for which the two SSA elders on the committee (@JimPocta and myself) are particularly grateful.

However, overtures 23 and 37 on the ordination of SSA men are not, in my opinion, an appropriate extension or application of the work of our committee. Despite containing much that I agree with, they reflect a deeply flawed approach to controversy through amendments to the BCO…

Why would I speak against two overtures which have so much content that I agree with? Several reasons:

1) They codify the language of expressive individualism in our BCO, actually reinforcing our culture’s inclination to place far too much emphasis on self-identification. What we say about who we are is far less important than who Jesus says we are, and to create a standard that is focused on the contemporary categories of identity is to make too much of them.

2) The language overture 23 codifies will likely be outdated in ten years. Are we prepared to go through the laborious process of amending our BCO every time our culture comes up with a new way to self-identify? That’s not the purpose of the BCO. The BCO gives the principles which the proper courts (presbyteries and sessions) apply. Our report argues against language policing. As Kevin DeYoung noted in our presentation: the goal was not the creation of terminology shibboleths.

He says more, but those two objections are important context.

While Derek Radner, a member of the Overture Committee that framed the motion passed on the floor provided his own context. I’ve unpacked some acronyms used in his Twitter thread for clarity.

Many of us assumed that, because the sexuality report said, “Insofar as such persons display the requisite Christian maturity, we do not consider this sin struggle automatically to disqualify someone for leadership in the church,” all the overtures about ordination would fail.

However, debate showed a divergence in the reading. Because the report said that, as a matter of wisdom & maturity, Christians should be encouraged to leave Same Sex Attraction identification language behind, many concluded officers must not use this language as mature persons.

Since the Overture Committee did not get to hear the Ad Interim Committee speak to their report, this group did not hear them show this was not their intent. Others of us, myself included, saw language as a matter of wisdom that should not be regulated, even for officers.

Tim Keller, himself a member of the Ad Interim Committee, tweeted his own word of caution about bringing Trojan horses (like the word identity) into the camp and using them as yardsticks for Orthodoxy. But I fear it’s too late, and the barbarians of expressive individualism are already behind the gates and defining how we approach complex pastoral and cultural issues without us realising.

Before we put modern words like “identify” or “identity” into our Constitution we should first do a major study to be sure we are using the word to convey biblical truth. Start with terrific essays by Michael Allen https://buff.ly/31AAGYH; also Scott Swain https://buff.ly/3ybQYV1

We want to make sure we use a word that won’t be considered in twenty years as opaque and obsolete.

One of my favourite thinkers, O. Alan Noble, has a forthcoming book on this issue You Are Not Your Own, he also tweeted:

Our conception of “identity” in the contemporary west is contradictory, elusive, and often self-serving. We’d do well to be extremely wary of using it in official contexts.

2 thoughts on “Identity is a Trojan Horse. Stop bringing it in behind the gates of the church”

  1. Dr Richard Morrison

    Thanks for your insights Nathan. I’m wondering if you make a distinction between identity (in the sense you are using it) and what psychology calls view or model of self?

    1. Nathan Campbell

      Good question Richard. I think I do, inasmuch as I understand the difference between the ‘sources of self’ that come from expressive individualism (which I’d see as problematically tied to ‘identity’), and the need to have some sort of ‘self-conception’ or model of self; if I’ve understood the psychological (and historical) landscape correctly there are heaps of alternative models for understanding a self (and even “identity”) out there, they’re just not necessarily the models that gave us the use/working definition of “identity”… My issue is not with having a self conception so much as modern sources of that self conception.

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