If You Want to Address LGBTQ Issues, Then Address Expressive Individualism
Underneath the flourishing of the LGBTQ movement is a worldview that is shared by almost everyone in our culture. This way of looking at life is often called “expressive individualism.” You may not have heard of it before, but as Trevin Wax points out, you have heard it in comments like, “you do you,” “be true to yourself,” “follow your heart,” “find yourself,” “be yourself.” That’s what expressive individualism sounds like in daily life. Can you imagine someone saying to you, “Now it’s really important that you don’t be yourself!” The reason that feels wrong is because expressive individualism is the water we swim in every day.
Furthermore, if you want to help your church know what to make of the LGBTQ movement, as well as their own personal temptations, you’ll want to understand the soil out of which it grows. You will want to make sure your people understand this soil as well.
WHAT IS EXPRESSIVE INDIVIDUALISM?
Let’s stop for a minute and think about what is behind the “you do you” philosophy of expressive individualism. There are several features. I’ll mention three.
First, a person’s true self is located in their feelings. I’ll give an example. If someone feels like a female even though their birth certificate and biology says they are a male, then many people today would say that makes the person a female. Or if someone feels attracted to people of the same sex, then that’s what they are. It’s their identity because we believe you are defined by your desires. You are what you feel yourself to be.
Second, the highest goal of expressive individualism is, perhaps unsurprisingly, for you to express yourself. In fact, freedom is getting to express yourself and be yourself.
Third, the ultimate authority in who you ought to be is you—not tradition, or religion, or custom, or government, or biology, just the inner you. If any outside authority gets in the way of your self-expression, then that’s oppression. If anyone says you should be ashamed of who you are or says, “you can’t be who you feel you are,” then that’s abusive.
That’s expressive individualism in a nutshell.
THE ROOT OF LGBTQ: EXPRESSIVE INDIVIDUALISM
If you are going to understand the LGBTQ movement, then you need to understand expressive individualism. You see, the letters in the LGBTQ movement are just like floors of a house, and expressive individualism is its foundation.
Let me illustrate. Have you noticed that the LGBTQ list is getting longer? When I was younger, it was just LGBT, then Questioning or Queer was added, and now Intersex and Ally have been added. There’s also the “+” because more designations will surely come. You might be tempted to see the letters of LGBTQ as individual flowers in a bouquet—one is a rose, another is a daffodil. You might think each letter is different and all they have in common is that they are not traditional straight sexuality. But if you think like that, you might miss that these different sexual identities are actually linked together. They’re not flowers in a bouquet, but rather like the honey mushroom in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest.
What’s the honey mushroom? It’s quite possibly the largest living organism on our planet, covering over three square miles. Now when you see it, you would just see a few little classic mushrooms here and there. But in reality these mushrooms are all interconnected underground. What looks like many mushrooms is actually one.
So it is with the LGBTQ+ movement. The constantly growing letters are actually united by something deeper, something underground. They are united by expressive individualism.
What’s more, the claims of the LGBTQ+ movement and the claims of Jesus are diametrically opposed. They are set for a head-on collision. Jesus himself says as much:
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. (Mk 8:34–38)
These words are decidedly not the air we breathe. These are counter cultural words from the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
HOW DO WE RESPOND TO LGBTQ?
So with the contrast and the clash clearly in our minds, how should pastors respond to the LGBTQ+ movement?
1. Point to the underground issue.
Pastors should start by helping their churches see the honey mushroom—the whole underground system—out of which individual mushrooms grow: expressive individualism. If we wanted to kill the honey mushroom, we wouldn’t get very far simply by picking off individual mushrooms that emerged on the surface. We would need to get underground and destroy the larger system.
Insofar as expressive individualism remains the default worldview of our church members, they will continue to feel an intuitive pull towards creating moral space for LGBTQ+ affirmation. They’ll see the biblical prooftexts that tell them sexual immorality is wrong, but their moral intuitions will feel otherwise. Something inside of them will keep saying, “Really? Do we have to say this is wrong?”
Therefore, show your people the relationship between the LGBTQ+ movement and expressive individualism. Doing so will help them recognize the source of that inner voice. It will address those deeper intuitions and help them to avoid being conformed to the pattern of this world and to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. It will also help them avoid self-righteous condemnation.
2. Teach the basics of what it means to follow Jesus.
Of course, you can’t just point to the underground root system. You have to replace it with something else. We do this by pointing to passages like Mark 8:34-38 again and again and reminding them of the basic call of Christian repentance and discipleship. It’s a call that envelopes every area of our lives, including our sexuality and identity.
First, we’re called to deny ourselves—or, to put it another way, to flee sin. Jesus isn’t saying you should deny your own existence, to pretend you don’t exist, or to commit mental suicide. Denying yourself doesn’t lead to non-existence; it leads to a new way of living which Jesus sums up as following him. Denying yourself also doesn’t mean you must deny all your desires for goodness and happiness. Jesus is not calling his people to be stoics who turn off their emotions and block out their desires. No, this whole passage speaks to those who don’t want to lose their lives, to people who want to keep their souls, and who do not want to feel the shame of Jesus being ashamed of them. So what self-denial is Jesus talking about? He’s talking about our deep personal desires for sin. He wants us to put away all sinful ways of finding joy in life, all earthly hopes of enjoying the good life. He wants us to deny all sinful impulses, temptations, and desires and instead to follow Jesus. To deny yourself is to flee your own desires for sin so you can follow the Savior.
Second, we’re called to our take up our cross—or, to put it another way, to embrace the shame that comes with following Jesus. Many people talk about cross-bearing in ways that have very little to do with Jesus and his actual cross. They get a sore back and they say, “This is my Cross to bear.” That’s not the central idea here. When Jesus took up the cross he was embracing public shame (Hebrews 12:2).
Think of the things that make you ashamed. No one wants to be naked in public, but on the cross Jesus was splayed out naked in public with no ability to cover himself. He did not die dressed in style; he died shamefully covered in blood, spit, and tattered flesh. None of us want people to see us when we’re sniffling and sneezing and feeling terrible. Jesus died in public panting for breath. None of us like to have a bad reputation for something we haven’t done. We don’t want to be “slut-shamed” or called a racist. But Jesus, the righteous man, hung naked on a cross like a common criminal. The godliest man the world has ever known was hung on a cross for being a blasphemer. He was shamed.
To follow Christ, you and I are called to embrace a life of being shamed. We follow the one who had shame heaped upon him, but we are not ashamed of him. His death on the cross for us is precious to us. So even though the world shames us for being associated with such a rigid, restrictive God and all his backward ideas, we embrace that shame and take up our cross to follow him.
Third and finally, we follow him. Notice that believers don’t look inward to find their marching orders. Everything we do is for him, even if it costs us everything. Did you hear him call us to be unashamed of him and his words? We are following the one who serves others, washes feet, submits to God’s natural world and God’s biblical commands. If believers have an orientation, it’s not inward but outward and toward Christ. We follow him.
Christian discipleship doesn’t say “you do you”; it says “no, you follow me.” This is the most merciful call in the world. Our own choices lead us to all kinds of misery, but merciful Jesus calls us to follow him, the most loving, holy, human, divine, person who ever lived. What compassionate grace!
3. We should compassionately expose LGBTQ sins.
We live in a world where many believe that LGBTQ lifestyles will bring them satisfaction. In fact, all LGBTQ sexual activity goes painfully against the grain of nature. This is one of the central truths the Bible brings up specifically when it deals with homosexual and transgender sins. Speaking of God’s wrath on humanity, Paul says,
God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Rom 1:26)
Notice Paul called sexual relations between a man and a woman natural, while lesbian and homosexual passions unnatural (cf Jude 7). Like all things that go against the grain of nature, they bring their own consequences in this life, the “due penalty” in themselves for their error. Elsewhere, when Paul speaks of men looking like men and women looking like women, he brings up nature again, “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” (1 Co 11:14–15)
It’s interesting when issues of sexual identity and gender identity come up in the Bible, nature is invoked. We know instinctively that men should dress and identify as men. We know instinctively that a man and a woman’s genitals fit together. I’m going to be graphic for a moment, but the reason I’m doing this is that when we talk about LGBTQ issues we often do so under the vague umbrella of love, and so we neglect to spell out what is actually going on in nature. When a man has anal intercourse with a man, it rips, it tears, it bleeds. It increases the chance of disease, and it makes your bum leak. When a man and a woman come together in vaginal intercourse, it is safe, naturally lubricated, and life creating. When a man and a man come together, the seed of life that comes out of a man is swallowed up in the bowels of defecation and death (Budziszewski, What We Can’t Not No). It’s not a natural action or desire. Furthermore, the results of these unnatural desires are severe. The Vanderbilt University Medical Center reports, “Men who have sex with men and gay men are at increased risk for certain types of chronic diseases, cancers, and mental health problems.” Gay men are at risk for HIV, HPV, Drug Abuse, Depression and Anxiety, Body Image Issues like anorexia, and bulimia. Transgender people are also susceptible to these same diseases, and their suicide rates are very high as well (Sharon James, Gender Ideology).
Someone could say that all the depression, the drug abuse, and the body image issues are because preachers like me keep telling people that these desires are unnatural. That would be one explanation. The other would be that when you go against nature there are predictable results. If you fill your lungs with carbon dioxide instead of oxygen there will be some predictable results. If you eat gravel for breakfast instead of granola there will be some predictable results (Budziszewski, The Meaning of Sex). And if you use your body unnaturally then there will be some predictable results.
We are afraid to speak like this because we fear it lacks compassion. But isn’t it the height of compassion to share these truths with the world? We lovingly warn people about cigarettes and lung cancer but not about all the disease and depression that goes with sexual sin. Perhaps people will hear us and start to see that going down unnatural and harmful ways will hurt them. Perhaps they will see our warnings as a mercy, as a compassionate call from the God of creation who said, “Deny yourself, take up your Cross, and follow me.” We should compassionately talk about LGBTQ issues as the unnatural sins they are, and we should invite unbelievers (and Christians who struggle) into the joy of denying self and following Jesus.
4. We should wisely reject LGBTQ identity.
Some Christians today say gay people should embrace a traditional Christian sexual ethic while at the same time refusing to reject a gay identity. These men and women would agree with the Bible that sexual activity should occur only within a heterosexual marriage. So far so good. However, they’d also think it’s entirely acceptable for Christians who feel gay to identify as such. They argue that how you feel oriented inside defines your identity. I have two responses.
First, the inclination to identify your real self with your internal desires is shaped more by expressive individualism than by biblical faith. Labeling your ultimate identity by your sexual desires is not the way the Bible speaks about us. Pastors, we should encourage our people to think about themselves the way the Bible encourages us to think about our identities.
Second, it strikes me as odd that we don’t deal with any of sin like this. For example, I’ve struggled with anger as a Christian. Should I self-identify as an angry Christian? One preacher pointed out that we would not walk around and say something like, “I’m a racist. I mean don’t get me wrong, I don’t practice racism, but in terms of my orientation, I prefer the company of white people. I feel white culture is better.” It sucks the wind out of me to say that.
“I’m a gay Christian” should sound the same to us. As Christians, our ultimate identity comes through who God made us (we are his creatures), who we are in Christ (we are new creatures in Christ), and the roles God gives us (as parents, children, and brothers and sisters in the Church). Real Christians can be tempted by homosexual desires and transgender confusion. They can feel them deep inside their bones. And yet, no Christian ought to label themselves with those temptations. Our primary identity is that we are in Christ. We come to him, we follow him, and we are not ashamed of him.
5. We should lovingly oppose LGBTQ oppression.
It’s often easy to see oppression in the past. It’s easy looking back and to see the evil of American slavery. It’s also easy to see oppression far away. The reports that come out of North Korea remind us that we have many brothers and sisters who are imprisoned and being tortured in our time.
It’s harder to see oppression up close. But make no mistake: the LGBTQ agenda is deeply oppressive. For example, many Christians have come to the conviction that we should not call someone by their preferred pronouns. To call a “she” a “he” or a “he” a “she” breaks the ninth commandment: do not bear false witness. But a Christian in New York today could be fined $250,000 for not using someone’s preferred pronouns. In 2017, an Ohio couple lost custody of their own child when they refused to help them transition to the opposite sex.
Across America, women are losing in women’s sports as mediocre men declare themselves women and use their superior masculine speed, athleticism, and strength to dominate. I suppose losing a gold medal is not oppression, but losing athletic scholarships to men means fewer women who will go to college for free.
In Canada, a law (Bill C-4) was recently passed that makes conversion therapy illegal. What is “conversion therapy”? Well, the law states that “conversion therapy means a practice, treatment or service designed to change a person’s sexual orientation to heterosexual; change a person’s gender expression so that it conforms to the sex assigned to the person at birth; or repress or reduce non-heterosexual attraction or sexual behavior.” Put simply, that makes it illegal to offer the hope of the gospel to same-sex attracted people.
Will this mean that a Christian preacher or Christian counselor who tries to help people reject unnatural desires will be fined or imprisoned? That remains to be seen. But we should be vocal like Jesus against this kind of evil. And yet, I want you to realize something: resisting this oppression will probably not happen in some dramatic speech, it will come when you say no to the pride pin they’re handing out at work, or refuse to put your pronouns on your name-tag because you won’t play that game. Yes, we must personally love LGBTQ people. More on that below. But I want to be clear that speaking truth about public issues so that people are not bankrupted, robbed of scholarships, or imprisoned for speaking the truth—that’s loving and compassionate, too.
6. We should eagerly love LGBTQ people with the gospel.
As Christians, we understand that all people, no matter how sinful their desires may be, are made in the image of God. On top of that, we follow a Savior who drew near to all sorts of sinful people. He was a friend of sinners. Our LGBTQ friends are sinners—like all of us—so we should show kindness to them.
We should have them into our homes, invite them to our churches, and read the Bible with them. We should find ways to show mercy to those suffering from AIDS, depression, and drug abuse. My old pastor in Toronto used to walk into an area of town where many gay men lived and express to them how much he longed for them to visit his church. We need more of that. Many of you will know the story of Rosaria Butterfield who was a lesbian University professor who was befriended by a pastor and his wife and over time led to the Lord. More of that, please!
Now, I know that in many situations your compassionate love and sharing of the good news will not be met with open arms. Calling people to repentance can be called abusive these days. Speaking about God’s standards can be called oppressive. Telling people that their only hope is in the cross of Christ has always seemed foolish to the world. But the world is terribly deceived. The world thinks cutting off a transgendered child’s genitals may be liberating. No, that’s abuse. The world may not love us, but we must love them even if they slander and misunderstand us. But if you are maligned, reviled, or even persecuted, then you are in good company. They did that to Jesus and the prophets. Our job is not to control people’s reactions to us, our job is to show the love of Christ to sinners.