The Bible presents a role for the body and sexuality within which Messiah-followers are called to serve God. They can flourish either as celibates or as sexually active within marriage between a man and a woman. I have a stake in teaching this ethic, since I have tried to live by it. Despite costs the path is worthwhile.
What does it mean to put identity in Messiah above any identities that alter the biblical meaning of marriage, and of being created male or female in the image of God? Marcia Benner Pusey recounts her ultimately successful struggle to bring her sexual behavior in line with her values through “Finding a Love that Orients.” She grew up in a Mennonite family and always knew that her parents loved her. In college Pusey entered into a caring, sexual relationship with a girlfriend which shocked her because it was so far from her beliefs. She hoped to maintain the relationship but without having sex. Although crying out to God for help, she found herself repeatedly drawn into sexual encounters. She entered a Discipleship Training Program which put 2000 miles between the girlfriend and her. After her life stabilized, Pusey returned to college. She still wanted to have a husband and children and eventually did so. She moved away from homosexuality by focusing on other things—completing grad school, parental illness and death, her marriage and raising children—and by emphasizing relational fulfillment over sexual fulfillment. Pusey questions whether she ever succeeded in defining her sexuality or even if she cares to do so. But she was able to bring her sexuality and longings before her Heavenly Father and to hear him say, “It doesn’t really matter . . . I love you.”
Self-identity “after supersessionism” means seeing oneself as a follower of Yeshua while affirming the continuing covenant between God and God’s people Israel, and seeing oneself within the story of God with Israel. The view that the Church has replaced Israel in God’s covenant implies that God is not faithful to his promises, thus undermining faith. Radical individualism combined with major cultural and technological change make it difficult to sustain a stable identity, with risks to mental health and social cohesion. The confusion underpins victimhood identities. By contrast a post-supersessionist approach to identity in Messiah is excellent for pursuing vocation, navigating Jew-Gentile relations in Messianic community, and resisting the stresses and confused, ephemeral identities of modernity. In some ways I know myself better than anyone else, but in some ways other people know me better than I do. Ultimately, God knows and loves me better than I know and love myself.
Religious identity is not simple for Messianic believers, situated between two communities that often reject their legitimacy, and lacking a continuous tradition or developed theology of their own. By contrast, in modern Western culture identity is self-constructed largely from inner resources. But is it fragile? Desires conflict and change. If my identity depends on achievement, I must continually compete with others and manage my image. Consumerism creates identities through purchases, even as it stokes new desires. The third source of identity is God, who calls us beloved. This “identity” is received rather than achieved. Identity, meaning, vocation, and destiny are found within God’s larger purposes.Tim Keller compares three sources of identity. In a traditional culture, identity is given by family and clan. One’s given identity includes roles, obligations, expectations, and limitations.
After this introduction, the first topic of the essay is “How Sexual and Gender Identities in the West Became Public, Pervasive, and Political.” Second is “Factors Contributing to my Self-Identity,” including body, family, place, career, music, religion, friendship and sexuality, and identifying as a threatened group. Third is “Uncovering Identity Scripts.” Fourth, “Identity Formation,” including the Gentile Analogy applied to homosexual and transgender people—and me, and youth considering LGBTQ identities. Fifth, “People, Roles, or Visions I Identify With.” My conclusion summarizes and integrates these topics.
How Sexual and Gender Identities in the West Became Public, Pervasive, and Political
Sexual and gender identities have changed in American culture during my lifetime. Carl Trueman explores how the notion of being a woman trapped in a man’s body (or vice-versa) came to be plausible today, whereas it was implausible yesterday. He argues that the central issue is the nature of human selfhood, and tells a story beginning in the 18th century Enlightenment.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the intellectual father of the French Revolution, looked within himself for knowledge about human nature. He claimed that in the natural state, humans are free and good, but become corrupted and enslaved by society. The true self is internal, and authenticity requires the expression of this inner self. Cultural oppression is identified with Christian sexual codes such as lifelong monogamous marriage. A shared universal human nature could provide a grounding for ethics. These themes were taken up in 19th century Romanticism.
Karl Marx presumed that the Enlightenment had disproved God’s existence. He saw society as composed of an elite who extract resources from the majority. The latter are alienated from the fruits of their labor, but the consolations of religion blind them from seizing political control.
Friedrich Nietzsche built upon the “death of God” by attempting to reconstruct morality. For him, human life has no intrinsic purpose and dignity; purpose and dignity are self-created. Moral good is arbitrary and claims for it are actually power grabs. His hero was the creative artist.
Oscar Wilde exemplified the artist who uses criteria such as beauty and originality to assign morality. Public life does not consist of obligation to others but is a performance revealing the inner self.
Sigmund Freud claimed that people are sexual from infancy, sex is primarily psychological, and the most important source of identity is sexual desire. Freud believed that suppression of sexual desire was necessary for civilization. Civilized people are creative but discontented.
Wilhelm Reich surmised that Marx correctly focused on societal oppression, but had wrongly located it in economics. Rather, that role had passed to psychological sexual repression, which Reich thought began in childhood. As children were trained to respect parental authority, they were made suitably docile for state exploitation as adults. As taken up by Herbert Marcuse and the New Left, oppression is primarily psychological. Revolution must therefore begin with the overthrow of sexual restraints and by removing children from their parents, as espoused by Marcuse.
Trueman traces these developments to bring us to the current situation. The sexual revolution continues today. According to Trueman, the “triumph of the erotic” is not simply an expansion of the boundaries of acceptable behavior and modesty, but requires their abolition. In the past, commitment to communal beliefs, practices, and institutions helped the individual find meaning in life. The contemporary West’s notion of the fulfilled life is personal psychological happiness. Meaning in life comes from expressing inner feelings and desires. The purpose of institutions becomes serving the inner sense of well-being and as platforms for the performance of authentic selves. As such, classrooms are not for forming citizens, but places in which students perform without the trauma of being challenged by views they disagree with.
Radical feminist gender theory sees a woman’s body as a threat to her existence as a person, which must therefore be resisted. This prepares the ground for gender fluidity. In contemporary Western culture there is attraction to being in an “oppressed” rather than an “oppressor” group. Transgender is one such “oppressed” group.
Trueman illustrates expressive individualism in recent U.S. Supreme Court opinions. The 2020 Bostock decision accepts that sex is psychological, not physical. My body is not necessarily part of myself. If I think I am a different sex from my body, I am. Earlier, Justice Scalia had astutely perceived that the ruling striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 2013 treated opponents of same-sex marriage as enemies of the human race.
For Thomas Aquinas and generally for the churches of the Global South, because there is no entanglement with personal identity, the question of the moral status of same-sex genital acts is relatively unproblematic. But sexual desire and gender identity have become public and hotly contested because they have come to be thought essential to personal identity. To have an identity is to be acknowledged by others and to belong. As Hegel noted, an individual finds self-consciousness in being recognized by a society, which occurs by behaving according to the conventions of that society. Trueman traces an implication of Hegel’s position:
For the expressive individual to receive recognition means that the assumptions of expressive individualism must be the assumptions of society as a whole. For the individual to be king, society must recognize the supreme value of the individual.
Thus, failure to affirm desires and identities in others is considered an attack on personal dignity and a leading cause of oppression.
Factors Contributing to My Self-Identity
Growing up, I was tall and thin with auburn hair, freckles, brown eyes, and big feet, all of which I liked. I was good at sports and academics. Yet after a certain age my body’s limitations multiplied: eye glasses, foot surgery that slowed me, a need to watch my weight, back problems that required exercises, cold feet in winter, some hearing and hair loss. My mind is not as sharp as it once was.
I had never worn a ring before I married. Wearing a wedding ring gave me an appreciation for body dysphorias. I had fleeting thoughts of amputating my finger if I could not remove the ring. With increasing wearing time my discomfort greatly diminished.
I knew I was loved. I was the second of three children. I was proud of my ancestry, and my father’s and grandfathers’ careers (scientist, chemical safety engineer, Methodist pastor). My older brother (by 18 months) and I shared interests and spent lots of time together. As adults we remain emotionally and intellectually close. He and his wife underwent Orthodox conversion to Judaism, raised a family, and now have grandchildren.
Children usually grow up and become parents. Yeshua may have acquired his fatherly qualities through becoming head of the family for his mother and younger brothers and sisters following the death of his father when Yeshua was an adolescent. My wife and I married too late to have children, but we helped to care for my parents in their old age.
The neighborhood I grew up in had many children my age. I knew the neighbors, and they knew me. I liked my house. I liked walking our dogs to open spaces where I let them off the leash. Over time, fields were replaced by new houses, and people moved away. I have never again lived in a place where I knew most of my neighbors.
After high school I left to attend Columbia College, near Harlem, followed by podiatry school in Harlem and practice in NYC. The last of five more relocations brought me to Connecticut. My wife and I have now lived in her house in a town near Hartford for many years. There are walking trails and fields nearby, but new businesses, more people, noise, and litter have appeared. Downsizing lies ahead.
I trained and practiced as a foot doctor, but reduced involvement in my career in favor of religious activities. After a few years, I found it impossible to continue professionally. I retrained as an epidemiologist (studying diseases in populations), so as to be a doctor without being a doctor. This was a good fit, although I sometimes questioned the value of my work.
Retirement substantially removes paid work as a source of pride and identity. In his retirement, my father continued intellectually based roles until these no longer became possible, to which he could not adjust well. I sense the same challenges. My self-identity will evolve somewhat. I look forward to knowing more fully, even as I have been fully known (1 Cor 13:12).
I had early interest in music, studied piano and trumpet, and taught myself guitar. Later I channeled my musical interests into theory, composition, ethnomusicology, chanting the Torah, and liturgical singing. As an adult I continue to play the piano, sing, and I chanted from the Besorah (Gospel) before COVID-19 appeared.
This subsection is longer than the others because religion plays a large role in my identity and decisions regarding the use of my sexuality, including marriage.
I grew up and was confirmed in a mainline Lutheran church where my parents were active members. As an adolescent I became born again and attended an initially charismatic Christian but increasingly liturgical Messianic congregation. This caused tension with my parents but we maintained good relations. Entering college I was serendipitously assigned to room with three Orthodox Jews, encountered Jewish New York, and became stricter in Jewish observance than my Messianic friends. Through my congregation I experienced satisfying worship, mitzvot, fellowship and teachings (mostly), and served as a Torah chanter. I internalized that Yeshua and his disciples were observant Jews, but that Christian (especially Lutheran) theology was partially yet deeply anti-Jewish and anti-Torah.
After college, a scandal in the Messianic congregation shook my belief that anyone could discern the Holy Spirit. Along with mystical nonsense which repelled me, the community had promoted a book which then and in later years I read for the Days of Awe.There, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explicated Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance in the Mishnah Torah, which systematizes relevant Talmudic and scriptural passages. The section “Blotting out Sin or Elevating It” illuminated my situation. I left the Messianic congregation, taking an aversion to charismatic leadership, but holding on to an appreciation for Judaism.
For a time I considered Orthodox conversion to Judaism. I read extensively at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Union Theological Seminary, Yeshiva University, and Columbia University. Having set a high bar for conversion I concluded that I did not meet it. Hence, I am not a Jew. There are some ritual behaviors that as a Gentile I should not engage. Yet I came to believe that I could serve God better without converting. Eventually my reading intensity diminished although I could not resolve all major questions. I attempted to understand God’s ways by exploring the logic of what God has revealed.
I joined a Mennonite church in NYC while continuing to attend the synagogue as well. Mennonites were an appealing alternative to mainline and evangelical churches. I admired the Mennonite peace witness, simplicity, humility, patience, and four-part singing. Mennonites seemed to create a stronger identity than Protestants. I considered their history of suffering for their faith more compelling than my Lutheran or Methodist heritages.
My religious identity included both Christian and Jewish practices. I had been influenced by the Holocaust writers Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Eliezer Berkovits, and Andre Neher, who helped me identify with Jews who challenge God’s silence from within the covenant. In my move to Connecticut for a job I prioritized proximity to Orthodox synagogues.
I sought a woman who was a serious follower of Yeshua but who was not offended by my Jewish practices. Eventually I met such a woman in a Messianic congregation. Happily it was more positive about Judaism than any I had encountered for two decades. We married. Our wedding was conducted in a Baptist church by my pastor there, with a homily delivered by my Messianic rabbi (Paul Saal) and mutual foot washing of my bride and me while Mennonite friends sang. The kosher meal following was held in the social hall of the Orthodox synagogue I attended, with jazz played by the Afro-Semitic Experience band.
Before the meal I led in singing “Be Present at Our Table, Lord” which as a child I had sung on special occasions. This was followed by a brachah (blessing) over the bread given by a friend in the Orthodox congregation. My bride Susan thought it would stimulate interesting conversation to seat people from different congregations together at tables. We know of only positive results from this experiment.
My wedding was a homecoming. Russ Resnik describes the hero’s journey in biblical and world literature.
The hero must separate from his family to find himself, and he also must return, so that he still belongs, even after the journey of separation. His separation empowers him to eventually return as a source of blessing and help. Through his journey, he becomes his own person, not just for his own sake, but to benefit the family, tribe, and community.
But my story does not end there. For the next years my wife and I attended a Messianic congregation, an Orthodox synagogue, a Mennonite fellowship that met for potluck and hymn sing, and a Baptist church. Although I led adult education classes among the Baptists, I did not become a church member, because issues of language for God and same-sex marriage were problematic there.
Liturgy and prayer mold self-identity. If God is my father and king, I am God’s son and servant. My Baptist church rarely called God “Father” or “King.” I perceived that the leadership thought that such language reflects fallen culture and wanted it changed. I instead believe that Israel’s calling God “Father” contrasted with surrounding cultures and serves God’s good purposes.
In recent decades many churches became affirming of same-sex marriage. I published essays informed by Paul within Judaism and post-supersessionism, opposing this position. But there are few venues where supersessionism can be opposed while at the same time supporting Yeshua’s sexual ethic.
After some years the local Mennonite gathering disbanded and American Mennonites and Baptists fractured over sexuality and gender issues. I moved to a congregation in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and became a member. A few years earlier the EPC congregation had separated from Presbyterian Church USA over the denomination’s departures from orthodoxy in several matters including sexuality. In 2022 my EPC congregation announced that in homosexuality matters it was side B. Attenders were free to self-identify in sexuality and gender however they pleased, but the congregation taught and expected the historic Christian sexual and gender ethic.
I continue to identify with several religious communities. My conversations are deeper in my Messianic congregation than any other. I hold several Mennonite beliefs, as well as Jewish ones. The teachings and fellowship in my Presbyterian church nourish me. I serve in all the congregations that I attend. When asked, I identify myself as a Christian and mention my church membership. Depending on the situation I may say more.
In the premodern setting, the Church had a lively sense of the Old Testament being about itself, and thus a sense of peoplehood. With the modern loss of the Church as Israel, peoplehood and the relevance of the Old Testament were also lost. The Church came increasingly to be seen as merely a collection of saved individuals. However, discarding ecclesial “Israelhood” did not make supersessionism disappear. Judaism was now said to provide the conditions for the emergence of the higher religion of Christianity. To combat supersessionism, George Lindbeck proposed that the Church share “Israelhood” with the Jewish people. To justify such a claim the Church must contain Jewish Yeshua-followers who are recognizably Jewish, which implies their Torah observance. Mark Kinzer agrees.
Since I am sympathetic to Lindbeck and Kinzer, why do I not reduce my affiliations to one congregation with a Gentile and a Jewish wing? First, I have never encountered such a congregation. But even if I found one, I worry that, even with the help of historical criticism, Jew and Gentile Yeshua-believers as Israel will be misused. A powerful rejection of supersessionism is to worship with Jews who do not know Yeshua as Lord. And study among observant Jews repudiates the notion that post-biblical, rabbinic Judaism is sterile. It also keeps me sensitized to Christian theological anti-Judaism.
A further reason for my current affiliations is that I formed ties in the congregations in which I participated. I believe that what I have imbibed from each congregation has contributed through me to each of the other congregations. This is an aspect of generativity. As John Paul Lederach counsels, don’t let the goal of your journey blind you from learning about your purpose along the way.
Friendship and Sexuality
I had close male friends while growing up. With exceptions, I talked sparingly in social gatherings. I felt awkward in some social situations and dated little, although I was attracted to women. I met the demands of higher education by deferring gratification of many sorts. After leaving my first Messianic community, I deferred dating and career decisions while confronting existential questions. Finally, my Mennonite and Jewish habits erected barriers to finding a marriage partner. However, after retraining and settling into a job, I found the right woman and we married when I was 46.
Identifying as a Threatened Group
In premodern times, lifespans were shorter on average. Religious rituals reflected the proximity and inevitability of death. But in the twentieth century, science and medicine extended lifespans and facilitated the illusion that eventually death could be conquered. At the same time, humans developed more powerful life-threatening weapons.
Real and perceived risks change. In my pre-school years my father built a basement fallout shelter, which he dismantled after concluding that nuclear war was not survivable. The risk of nuclear exchange between the superpowers diminished after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but has risen following the Russian attack on Ukraine. Some nuclear materials are unaccounted for, and additional nations have obtained or strive to obtain nuclear weapons.
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, heightened Americans’ sense of vulnerability. The Department of Public Health where I worked increased security measures, planned for disasters including bioterrorism, and mandated training on how to respond to an active shooter in the building. A continuing stream of unfamiliar, threatening diseases have appeared in my lifetime. Humanity’s pattern of misrule on the earth is unsustainable, with destruction of habitats and species.
Christianity began as a persecuted minority within Judaism, but for almost two millennia Jews were a persecuted minority within Christian society. In America, Jews found unprecedented toleration, which however became a threat through assimilation. Secularism increasingly acts as a rival religion and threatens Christians and Jews alike.
The 2018 shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh changed American Jews’ perception of their safety. My wife and I volunteer with security duties when we attend my Orthodox synagogue. Though we are not armed, this role created tension with my self-identity as a healer and a Mennonite. Ironically, decades earlier the first Messianic congregation that I attended had members patrolling the property in response to threats from non-messianic Jews.
Uncovering Identity Scripts
It seems likely that I unconsciously hold assumptions that direct my behaviors both in helpful and unhelpful ways. My wife often reacts to experiencing an accident by laughing, while by contrast I might express anger. Am I following a script of how a man acts? Nonetheless it is embarrassing to be observed in these behaviors. I now respond to hitting my head on a low ceiling by saying, “House, let’s be friends.”
Through a mussar group I realized that I need and want to cultivate gratitude. It appeared, though, that this Jewish approach to acquiring the virtues conflicts with Protestant teaching to let God reform the self. The mussar approach had the insight that what is not measured will remain out of sight and not change, while the typical Christian approach had the insight that working hard to improve yourself leads to burnout. I think these Jewish and Christian paths to gratitude are reconciled by cultivating a self-identity not primarily as a grateful person (inward directed), but as a person who has many reasons to be grateful (outward directed). This is done by meditating on, and speaking of, what I can be grateful for as a creature, a human, a member of the people of God, and as an individual. “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so” (Ps 107:2).
Self-improvement is hard. Attention to identity formation would help. I want to better understand Paul’s efforts to form the “in Messiah” identities of his Gentile readers. I use Pauline writings in the biblical materials from which I develop the Gentile Analogy. When I make analogy from the biblical welcome of Gentiles to the welcome of gay people, I am also trying to grow, that I might serve others. The moral and identity formation in Scripture is vastly greater than the portion I have fitted to the Gentile Analogy. Paul writes,
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things you have learned and received and heard and seen from me, and the God of peace will be with you. (Phil 4:8–9)
This is especially apt in our time, when media grab our attention with negative stories that provoke dismay. There is a more excellent way.
The Gentile Analogy Applied to Homosexual and Transgender People—and Me
My analogies from Gentiles to homosexual people include welcome and equality in the ekklesia, selective appropriation of culture, calling and service, the role of the Holy Spirit, self-limitation to protect a neighbor’s conscience, vulnerability, bearing one another’s burdens, encouragement, God’s faithfulness, identity in Messiah, and praising God together. These analogies could be fruitfully extended to transgender persons. The diverse praise that Gentiles, and analogously, sexual minorities offer is their distinctive adornment of God’s eschatological temple.
Some persons find their identity oppressive. In the Greco-Roman world there were Jews who undid their circumcision (1 Macc 1:15), which Paul disapproved of (1 Cor 7:18). Yeshua met a Gentile living among tombs, engaging in self-harm, and possessed by “Legion” (Mk 5:1–20). Yeshua expelled the demons.
Mark 4:35–41 and 6:45–53 narrate crossings of the Sea of Galilee that may dramatize the struggle of the Yeshua movement to bridge the deeply alienated Jewish and gentile worlds. Yeshua stills the storms; analogously today he protects the ekklesia amidst LGBTQ-related controversies. Yeshua’s critique of hand washing (Mark 7:1–22) affirms Torah over human traditions. Messiah broke down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile (Eph 2:15)—not the law as such, but hostile applications of the law. Analogously, some conventional and restricted roles for males and females may be too heavy a yoke for many LGBTQ people. Honor and shame traditions about sexuality that impede fellowship in the ekklesia must be measured against Scripture.
Paul teaches gentile Yeshua-followers that they do not need to become Jews in order to be adopted into God’s people. He addresses them as Gentiles (Rom 1:13; 11:13), but also as former Gentiles (1 Cor 12:2) who are not to act like Gentiles (1 Thess 4:5). In Romans, Paul’s motto “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” emphasizes God’s irrevocable covenant bond to the Jewish people, and mutual blessing within the body of Messiah. In post-supersessionist reading, Paul helps Christ-following Gentiles to understand that ongoing Jewish identity is vital to their own identity. Israel is the root that sustains the in-grafted Gentiles (Rom 11:18). Analogously, everyone is a branch of the family tree, whose roots are one’s ancestors. Even if you are gay or transgender, you belong to a natural family and owe your existence to your father, mother—and God. Yet Yeshua also said that his mother and brothers are anyone who hears the word of God and does it (Luke 8:21).
Messiah is the goal of the Torah (Rom 10:4). When the law is placed in the realm of Messiah, Spirit, and faith, it functions as originally intended (Rom 8:1–4), before it was co-opted by sin, death, and the flesh.By analogy, the sexually differentiated body and gender are properly used in Messiah, Spirit, and faith, but potentially misused outside that sphere.
In-Messiah Gentiles are not under Torah in the same way as in-Messiah Jews (Rom 6:14–15), but they thrive among Jews formed by the Sinai covenant. By living according to certain Torah-based norms, Spirit-led Gentiles learn the righteousness expected of all humanity (Rom 6:16; Isa 2:2–4). Analogously, gay and transgender persons benefit in cultures based on certain heterosexual and cisgender norms. Such cultures are ordered to include both sexes, are intergenerational, prioritize children and benefit the next generation, and also honor single people.
Necessary Torah-based norms include the understanding of marriage. God’s will is the sanctification of Yeshua-following Gentiles; that they abstain from fornication, and each man knows how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor, not like the Gentiles (1 Thess 4:4–8). Analogously, the scriptures also provide guidance for LGBTQ persons. Just as the Gentiles rejoiced at the exhortation in the Apostolic Decree (Acts 15:31), many LGBTQ persons gladly receive biblical-traditional teaching on sex and marriage.
Yeshua affirmed that God created humans male and female in God’s image, that a man is joined to his wife in marriage, and that they thereby become one flesh (Mk 10:6–8; Gen 1:27, 2:24). The two become one in marriage, rejoining the one that became two in Creation (Gen 2:22–23).
Drawing on Scripture, Christian and Jewish traditions see pattern, purpose, and symbol in marriage. The pattern of marriage is the union of a man and woman. The purposes of marriage are companionship, procreation, to nurture children, rule creation, cultivate virtue, solidify society, and remedy sin. The symbol of marriage is God’s relationship to Israel, and Messiah to the Church, involving covenant love, faithfulness, and salvation. Single and married Yeshua-followers await the Lamb’s marriage banquet and through their chastity testify to God’s salvation. By contrast, tuning away from God to false gods is adultery. The positive and negative imagery of man-woman marriage is pervasive across Scripture.
Same-sex union distorts marriage’s form, function, and figure. The pattern of heterosexual marriage joins creation to covenant, whereas same-sex union suggests that God’s love in salvation is indifferent to God’s wisdom in creation. It requires doctrinal change, the re-definition, and not simply the expansion of marriage. Some innovations among heterosexual marriage (no-fault divorce, open marriage, some forms of contraception and assisted reproductive technology) also distort the form, function, and figure of marriage.
If the New Testament touches on how Gentiles form their identities in Messiah with relation to Jews and Jewish practices, stories in the Tanakh suggest how the people of God form their covenantal identities while encountering Gentiles and gentile practices. These stories are amenable to analogical application for Messiah-followers who are considering adopting LGBTQ identities.
Jacob and Esau contended for their father’s favor. Jacob obtained the blessing and birthright by deceit, rather than relying on God’s promise. Jacob donned his brother’s clothing to pose as Esau. Later he wrestled with a mysterious person who told him he has wrestled with God and with men, and gave Jacob a blessing and new name (Gen 32:28).
Jacob gained self-understanding by learning the identity of God. When Jacob first met Rachel, he “lifted up his voice and wept” (Gen 29:11). According to a midrash, this was because, in contrast Abraham’s servant when seeking a wife for Isaac, Jacob arrived penniless. Jacob perceived that if he had not cheated Esau, he could have made a proper marriage proposal. After Jacob worked seven years for Rachel, Laban brought Leah to the marriage bed, remarking afterward that it is not the custom to give the younger before the older. Jacob learned how Esau felt by himself being tricked. Later, Jacob married Rachel and had an ambiguous reconciliation with Esau. Jacob departed the land of Canaan by proposing a deal with God (Gen 28:20–21). He returned home acknowledging that God had given him better than he deserved (Gen 32:9–10).
Joseph was talented, good-looking, and conceited, and he antagonized his brothers. Sold into slavery, and then falsely imprisoned, Joseph subsequently rose to national leadership. His role required him to dress and act like an Egyptian. But remembering his roots and calling, he recognized God’s providence in all that had happened, reunited his family, and saved many people.
Moses was saved from Pharaoh’s murderous decree against Hebrew boys. Adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses grew up in the royal household. His intervention against an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew put Moses’ life in danger. He fled to Midian, married, and became a shepherd. God called Moses to lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt, to Mount Sinai, and further. Moses first declined, yet later God described him as “faithful in all my house” (Num 12:7).
Naomi put questions of identity and allegiance to her Moabite daughters-in-law. Ruth replied, “Your people will be my people and your God my God,” (Ruth 1:16) and followed Naomi. Ruth become an ancestor of David and the Messiah.
Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Ruth all faced challenges. The men were separated from land and family and exposed to alien cultures; Ruth chose to separate from the land, family, and culture into which she was born. They matured into their identities. From these stories, Yeshua-followers with various sexual and gender identities can trust that God calls them and is with them in their journeys despite their flaws. Henri Nouwen said that the vital questions are not how I am to find, know, and love God, but how to let myself be found, known, and loved by God.
Youth Considering LGBTQ Identities
When Moses’ father-in-law met him after the Exodus he exclaimed, “Now I know that YHVH is greater than all the gods.” The Mekhilta to Exodus 18:11 elaborates that Jethro/Hobab had worshiped every god. By analogy he represents the person who has engaged in every sexual behavior and adopted every gender identity. After Jethro’s declaration of faith in the God of Israel, Moses accepted his advice on leadership (Exod 18:24) and invited him to accompany the Israelites (Num 10:29).
Many young people find LGBTQ identities attractive. The LGBTQ people they know are accepting and form communities with a strong sense of belonging. By contrast, the congregations and youth groups these people know of discourage questions about alternate sexuality and are hostile to LGBTQ people. The gender-atypical expressions of these youth are like the tip of the iceberg, below which are their unseen motivations. To connect with these youth, Mark Yarhouse and Julia Sadusky urge friendships and willingness to explore the issues that are of interest to them.
Yarhouse and Sadusky emphasize the need for listening to transgender persons and coming alongside them. This is spiritual accompaniment. In Acts 8, an Ethiopian eunuch was returning home from Jerusalem. Phillip approached his chariot and heard him reading from Isaiah 53. Phillip asked the man if he understood what he was reading. In response, the eunuch invited Philip to sit with him and explain Scripture. Beginning with that very passage, Phillip told the eunuch the good news about Yeshua. Coming to some water, the Ethiopian asked if he could be baptized. Phillip then baptized the man, who went on his way rejoicing
God’s word is a lamp and light also to LGBTQ people (Ps 119:105), and the Lord will lead his flock like a shepherd (Isa 40:11). Although the Christian Bible is written by and about Jews, it assumed its final shape in an almost entirely gentile setting. Gentiles found nourishment in these words (Mk 7:28), and so can sexual and gender minorities. The Psalms bring our praises and laments to God. Many express disorientation which becomes reorientation.
In this section I suggested that Scripture ought to contribute to identity formation. I made analogy from the identities of Gentiles “in Messiah” (which includes me) to sexual minorities “in Messiah,” and recommended spiritual accompaniment of youth who are considering LGBTQ identities. The next section discusses my identity formation through acquiring role models and adopting their visions.
People, Visions, and Roles I Identify With
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explored ideal types. Adam the first man (Gen 1) is the self-confident builder who brings nature under his control. Adam the second (Gen 2) is the relational, lonely creature who submits to the Almighty and recreates himself through repentance. The complete person embodies both. Repentant Man’s doubts and struggles mold him. He is characterized by suffering, creativity, and the ability to make free choices. Repentant Man does not live with the past, but with the future of which the past has become a part.
Michael Wyschogrod studied Talmud with Soloveitchik. He was among the earliest Orthodox Jews in Christian-Jewish dialogue. Wyschogrod argued for the distinction between Jew and Gentile in Paul’s theology, and Barth’s theology interested him. Although critical of Jewish Christianity, he once lectured at a Messianic Jewish Theological Institute-sponsored event. Wyschogrod’s Jewish identity has been shaped by appreciation for a Christianity that does not intend to replace the Jewish people, but to join them as adopted sons and daughters in the household of God.
Rabbi Marc Gopin was a student of Soloveitchik who admired Mennonites and who worked in international peacebuilding. Gopin learned that even the most religiously conservative Jew can become a peacemaker. He commended Rabbi Menachem Frohman, a friend of the Israeli settler movement who had extensive and mutually respectful relationships with Arafat and Islamic fundamentalists. A key is relating to the stranger, who may turn out to be a “lost brother.” We have a potentially infinite supply of dignity, honor, and compassion to offer.
John Paul Lederach is a Mennonite peacebuilder who writes about imagination, risk, and vocation. One cannot see the future, only the past. Longing for true home is vocation. Finding a way home is a journey to self-understanding. People who are close to home no matter where they live or travel are “Voicewalkers.” He dedicated one book to Rose Barmasai, who walked the Rift Valley of Kenya. She was at the edge of her own community, moving and mediating between worlds of tribal wars while being part of the fabric where they happened.
John W. Miller’s career spanned co-founding an urban intentional Christian community, directing psychiatric rehabilitation at a hospital, and a professorship in Old Testament. I read his books on Proverbs, canon, fathering, and Yeshua. Miller attributes to Yeshua the “generativity” of a mature man. Yeshua navigated profound intimacy with his heavenly father in a way that avoided hubris.
I find similarities between Miller’s portrait of Yeshua, Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith and Lederach’s Voicewalker. Repentance and finding home are related through teshuvah which means both repentance and return. Generativity aligns with the mature life stages that involve “lending your strength,” facilitating the flourishing of others, and wisdom. Generativity is expressed by the mutual blessing of Jews and Gentiles. Rosner calls Messianic Judaism to “cultural brokerage” between Jewish and Christian communities.
The first generation of the radical Reformation (16th century) attacked outward religious forms which they felt conflicted with inner spirituality. Later generations often took one of two paths. Some adopted evangelical revivalism so as to recreate the dynamics of the first generation. Others recognized that outer spirituality could support inner spirituality. Amish and Old Order Mennonites cultivated unwritten traditional practices. Similarly, Catholic inner life was cultivated within the monastery. Parallels to traditional Judaism abound. The highly ordered Passover seder contains the admonition to regard yourself as if you had personally gone out of Egypt. Joseph Caro was a halakhist and mystic; Joseph Soloveitchik a halakhist and existentialist. Paul was a mystic who formulated halakhah for “in-Christ” Gentiles. This combination of inner and outer spirituality is also the vision of that stream of Messianic Judaism that most attracts me.
Supersessionism is the belief that the Church replaces the Jewish people in God’s covenant. Gentiles in Messiah “after supersessionism” are blessed with, not against or apart from, Israel. Identity in Messiah entails putting our sexuality and gender under God’s will as expressed in Scripture and the sexed bodies with which we are created.
“How Sexual and Gender Identities in the West Became Public, Pervasive, and Political” discusses thinkers from Rousseau to Marcuse. The ongoing sexual revolution grounds identity in inner consciousness, apart from and even in conflict with the body and the wisdom of traditional, communal guidance. This unstable modern self-identity subverts identity in Messiah, who created, loves, and guides us.
I discussed factors related to my self-identity. Over a lifetime my self-conception has evolved. I grew up in a loving Christian family and stable environment. As I became increasingly aware of the Jewishness of Yeshua, I integrated aspects of Judaism into my life and saw myself as joined to the people of Israel although not a Jew. After a scandal in my religious community, I came to participate in Christian, Messianic, and Orthodox Jewish congregations concurrently. Since Yeshua taught that sexual expression is reserved for marriage between a man and a woman, I was celibate until I married. When homosexuality roiled American churches and synagogues, I defended the sexual ethics of Yeshua from a post-supersessionist theology. I ended affiliations that interfered with following Yeshua.
Parts of identity lie below consciousness. I try to counter unconscious scripts that push me toward anger by instead expressing gratitude. Identity formation can include the use of analogy to apply the biblical welcome and guidance of Gentiles “in Messiah” to the modern context of welcoming and guiding gay and transgender people “in Messiah.”
I sketched the thought of contemporary thinkers whom I admire. For Joseph Soloveitchik, the tension between outward and inward co-exists within Repentant Man, who exhibits freedom, suffering, and creativity. Michael Wyschogrod’s Jewish identity was shaped by appreciation for post-supersessionist Christianity. Marc Gopin extends honor, dignity and compassion to the stranger, who may be a lost brother. John Paul Lederach’s peacemaking vocation is a journey toward self-understanding by finding a way home. John Miller portrayed Yeshua as a fatherly though celibate man who blessed others because his intimate relationship with God did not lead to hubris. I believe these visions support one another. I identify with the Messianic Judaism that, like some forms of Judaism and Christianity, integrates inner and outer spirituality.
Dr. Jon C. Olson retired in 2022, works part-time in epidemiology, and lives with his wife, Susan, near Hartford, Connecticut.
1 Jon C. Olson, “Review of Darrin W. Snyder Belousek, Marriage, Scripture, and the Church: Theological Discernment on the Question of Same-Sex Union,” Direction Journal vol. 51 no. 1 (2022). Two congregations where I was a member in the 1990s belong to Mennonite Church USA. In 2022 MCUSA delegates rescinded the membership guidelines which defined marriage as between a man and woman, and approved a resolution for repentance and transformation which charged the guidelines with harm; .
2 Marcia Benner Pusey, “Finding a Love that Orients,” in Stumbling Toward a Genuine Conversation on Homosexuality, ed. Michael King (Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2007), 262–70.
3 Jon C. Olson, “The grace key that opens the Scriptures,” The Mennonite 108:21 (November 9, 1993): 13.
4 Glynn Harrison, A Better Story: God, Sex, and Human Flourishing (London: IVP, 2017). Identifying as a threatened group, when combined with contentment whatever the circumstances (Phil 4:11–13), is healthier than victimhood identity.
5 Richard Harvey, Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology (Colorado Springs: Milton Keynes, 2009). Mark Kinzer and Antoine Levy agree that there is no equidistant point between Jewish and Christian traditions. Kinzer favors Judaism while Levy favors Christianity; Mark Kinzer “Two Necessary Paths to a Common Destination: A Rejoinder to Levy,” Pro Ecclesia 31:3 (2022): 414–28. On the hybrid identity of gentile Yeshua-followers see Olson, “Post-supersessionist Analogy.”
6 Expressed in Sujatha Gidla, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017).
7 . See also Harrison, A Better Story.
8 Jon C. Olson, “The Jerusalem Decree, Paul, and the Gentile Analogy to Homosexual Persons,” Journal of Religious Ethics 40.2 (2012): 361–85; Jon C. Olson, “Post-supersessionist Analogy between Welcoming Gentiles in Scripture and Homosexual Persons Today,” Kesher 33 (2018): 73–94.
9 Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer.
10 Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism and the Road to the Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020). Craig Carter would extend the roots back into the medieval period and its retrieval of ancient Greek materialists. See .
11 Forming judgments is often attacked as judgmental; see Frank Furedi, “The Diseasing of Judgment,” First Things issue 309 (January 2021).
12 Ryan T. Anderson, “Neither Androgyny nor Stereotypes: Sex Differences and the Difference They Make,” Texas Review of Law & Politics 24.1 (2019): 211–62.
13 Preston Sprinkle interview with Helena Kerschner
14 Ryan T. Anderson, Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom (New York: Regnery, 2015), 184. Elliot Millco comments that to be labeled hostes humani generis “meant to be deprived of the right to voice your opinion in the public square. . . . To be told that your moral universe was anathema to the political foundations of a free society.” ().
15 Stephen R. Holmes, “Should We ‘Welcome’ and ‘Affirm’? Reflecting on Evangelical Responses to Human Sexuality,” in Revisioning, Renewing, Rediscovering the Triune Center: Essays in Honor of Stanley J. Grenz, eds. Derek J. Tidball, Brian S. Harris, Jason S. Sexton (Eugene: Cascade, 2014), 121–134; here 128. Holmes suggests that social constructions of gender must have happened in Thomas’ culture too, but if patterns of sexual desire had no entangling with personal identity, Aquinas had no need to pay attention to the constructions.
16 Trueman, Modern Self, 58.
17 Trueman, Modern Self, 64.
18 In contrast, ; the 2022 Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare decision is similar to findings in Finland and the UK that the risks of hormonal interventions for gender dysphoric youth outweigh the potential benefits. See also Society for Evidence Based Gender Medicine updates at .
19 On dysphorias see Jon Olson, “An Approach to Transgender Issues,” Kesher 38 (2021): 53–72.
20 John W. Miller, Jesus at Thirty: A Psychological and Historical Portrait (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997).
21 Jon C. Olson, “Might the Lutheran Paul Aim to Keep the Law?” Journal of Lutheran Ethics 14;11 (December 2014).
22 Pinchas H. Peli, On Repentance in the Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Jerusalem: Orot, 1980).
23 Others from that Messianic community took different lessons, including Christian supersessionism, atheism, or what Gershom Scholem in The Messianic Idea in Judaism (New York: Schocken, 1971) called redemption through sin. Believers may have insights or bear spiritual fruit connected with their experiences of same-sex attraction, though neither justify same-sex practice.
24 Jon C. Olson, “Gentile Yeshua-Believers Praying in the Synagogue: Why and How,” Kesher 23 (2009): 47–69.
25 Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Halakhic Mind: An Essay on Jewish Tradition and Modern Thought (London: Free Press, 1986).
26 I remained proud of my maternal grandfather, who had served as a navy chaplain during WWII.
27 Jon Olson, “Chutzpah and Gelassenheit,” The Mennonite 107:22 (November 24, 1992): 515, integrated Chutzpah (audacity) and Gelassenheit (yieldedness).
28 I also read Schweitzer, Scholem, Shostakovich, Shalamov, Solzhenitsyn, Sharansky, and literature about psychopathology.
29 Russell Resnik, “Identity, Joseph, and the Hero’s Journey,” Kesher 31 (2017): 17–26, here, 20.
30 John W. Miller, Calling God “Father”: Essays on the Bible, Fatherhood, and Culture (Mahway NJ: Paulist, 1999); Jon C. Olson, review of James V. Brownson, Bible Gender Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, Kesher 30 (2016): 105–14.
31 George Lindbeck, “What of the Future?” in Christianity in Jewish Terms, eds. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, David Novak, Peter Ochs, David Fox Sandmel, and Michael A. Signer (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000), 357–66; here, 361.
32 Mark S. Kinzer, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005), 305–306.
33 Contra Lindbeck, “What of the Future?”, 362.
34 Olson, “Gentile Yeshua-Believers Praying in the Synagogue.” See also Jon C. Olson, “Pauline Gentiles Praying Among Jews,” Pro Ecclesia 20:4 (2011): 410–30; for the remnant representing and sanctifying Israel, Kinzer, Postmissionary, 125.
35 “First the Jewish ekklesia . . . must receive the testimony borne by the wider Jewish community to the God of Israel before it is fit to bear its own witness” (Kinzer, Postmissionary, 304).
36 John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2005), 113–30.
37 Robert Chazan, “Christian-Jewish Interactions over the Ages,” in Christianity in Jewish Terms, 7–24.
38 The class used Alan Morinis, Everyday Holiness (Boston: Trumpeter, 2008), Alan Morinis, With Heart in Mind (Boston: Trumpeter, 2014), and other texts.
39 Olson, “Jerusalem Decree”; Olson, “Post-supersessionist Analogy.”
40 R. Kendall Soulen, “Trinity and Church after Supersessionism: A Thought Experiment with Jenson and Augustine,” in The Promise of Robert W. Jenson’s Theology: Constructive Engagements, eds. Stephen John Wright and Chris E. W. Green (1517 Media/Fortress, 2017), 115–20; here 125.
41 Matthew Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020).
42 Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man (New York: Orbis, 1989), 189.
43 Thiessen, 187–93; Jon C. Olson, “Supersessionism or Mutual Blessing on the Menu? Christ-Following Gentiles Dining Among Christ-Following Jews,” Pro Ecclesia 31:3 (2022): 321–49.
44 Lionel J. Windsor, Reading Ephesians and Colossians after Supersessionism (Eugene: Cascade, 2017), 138–39.
45 David Rudolph, “‘To the Jew First’ Paul’s Vision for the Priority of Israel in the Life of the Church,” Kesher 37 (2020): 11–26.
46 J. Brian Tucker, Reading Romans after Supersessionism: The Continuation of Jewish Covenantal Identity (Eugene: Cascade, 2018), 98.
47 Mark D. Nanos, “Introduction,” 27, in Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle, eds. Mark D. Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015).
48 Stuart Dauermann and Ellen Goldsmith, “Messianic Jewish Ethics Concerning Intimacy and Sexuality,” Kesher 30 (2016): 3–33.
49 Snyder Belousek, Marriage, 285.
50 Russ Resnik, “The Two Shall Become One Flesh: The Beginning and End of Marriage,” Kesher 29 (2015): 3–25; here, 4.
51 Resnik, “The Two Shall Become One,” 6, 11; Mark A. Yarhouse, Homosexuality and the Christian (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010), 26–27.
52 Chaim Rapoport, Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2004), 90–94. Yeshua (Luke 20:27–40) assumes a procreative purpose for marriage.
53 Introducing Christian Ethics, eds. Samuel Wells and Ben Quash (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 284–96.
54 Dauermann and Goldsmith, “Messianic Jewish Ethics,” 4–6; Resnik, “The Two Shall Become One,” 9; Vered Hillel, “A Messianic Jewish View of Divorce,” Kesher 29 (2015): 45–71; here, 47–48; Paul Saal, “Queer for Jesus: A Messianic Jewish Perspective,” Kesher 30 (2016): 49–71; here, 61.
55 Snyder Belousek, Marriage, 31–55.
56 Christopher C. Roberts, Creation & Covenant: The Significance of Sexual Difference in the Moral Theology of Marriage (London: T & T Clark, 2007), 247; Resnik, “The Two Shall Become One,” 23.
57 Dauermann and Goldsmith, “Messianic Jewish Ethics,” 11
58 Snyder Belousek, Marriage, 119–65. A consistent ecclesial ethic excludes pornography, pre-marital sex, cohabitation, casual divorce, and adulterous remarriage (186).
59 Bereishit Rabbah 70 says Jacob wept because he arrived penniless. I cannot recall the modern interpreter who inferred that Jacob’s sorrow was for cheating Esau.
60 Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 106; cited in Mark A. Yarhouse and Julia Sadusky, Emerging Gender Identities: Understanding the Diverse Experiences of Today’s Youth (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2020), 192.
61 Yarhouse and Sadusky, Emerging Gender Identities, 169–204.
62 Yarhouse and Sadusky, Emerging Gender Identities.
63 Karen Worstell, “Livui Ruchani: Spiritual Accompaniment in Messianic Community,” Kesher 33 (2018): 15–34.
64 Peli, On Repentance, 54.
65 Jon Olson, “Reflections on Michael Wyschogrod’s Critique of Jewish Christianity, “ Kesher 18 (2005): 107–36.
66 Stuart Dauermann, Converging Destinies: Jews, Christians, and the Mission of God (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2017), 250.
67 Michael Wyschogrod, Abraham’s Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 236.
68 Marc Gopin, Holy War, Holy Peace: How Religion can Bring Peace to the Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2002), 19–20. See also Jon C. Olson, review of Marc Gopin, Holy War, Holy Peace: How Religion Can Bring Peace to the Middle East, Kesher: A Journal of Messianic Judaism 16 (2003): 146–58; Jon C. Olson, “On My Desk: Religion and Peacemaking,” review of Marc Gopin, Between Eden and Armageddon: The Future of World Religions, Violence, and Peacemaking, Mennonite Weekly Review (September 13, 2001): 6.
69 Lederach, Moral Imagination, 131–150.
70 Lederach, Moral Imagination, 167–68.
71 Jon Olson, review of John W. Miller, How the Bible Came to Be: Exploring the Narrative and Message, Kesher 21 (2006): 104–108.
72 Miller, Jesus at Thirty.
73 This was expressed in the men’s ministry at my EPC church.
74 Olson, “Supersessionism or Mutual Blessing on the Menu?”
75 Jennifer M. Rosner, “Messianic Jewish Life Together: Covenant, Commission, and Cultural Brokerage,” Kesher 39 (2021): 153–66.
76 Dennis D. Martin, “Catholic Spirituality and Anabaptist and Mennonite Discipleship,’ Mennonite Quarterly Review, January 1988, 5–25.