Becoming Christian does not require us to give up our identities, our cultures or our integrity. Rather, clothed with a new self in addition to our old, we are called to discern wisely and in love… how to live with integrity as Christians as well as who we already were.
A Call to Christian Integrity
17 Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. 18They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. 19They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practise every kind of impurity. 20That is not the way you learned Christ!
V.17 is a problematic one for me as a queer person. So often I hear it said that, for queer people, the injunction to “no longer live as the Gentiles live” (v.17) means to no longer live as the queers live. In other words, there is an assumption that exists in many churches that to live life in Christ, queer people must abandon their culture and identity. To live in Christ is to live as a straight person: to live as a queer person is to be a “Gentile”, an alien to God, and to reject God’s purposes for our lives.
But this is to completely miss the point of what Ephesians is trying to say. The “Gentiles” of which Ephesians speaks are those in the Graeco-Roman culture which so contrasted in many ways from the Jewish culture the early Christians began to emulate. And the characteristic which for Ephesians characterises this culture is “the futility of their minds” (v.17). There is something about the way that people think, the way they perceive the world and themselves, that is preventing them from living fully the life that is offered in Christ.
Indeed, what for Ephesians sets these people apart as “Gentiles” (v.17) is the fact that they are “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart” (v.18). Ephesians says that there is something that those who do not know Jesus lack, leading to an ignorance characterised by “hardness of heart” (v.18). Think of the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus 9, or the promise of God repeated twice in Ezekiel 11 and 36 that God will replace the people’s hearts of stone with a heart of flesh.
Throughout the Old Testament, those who do not know or have forgotten the love of God display a hardness of heart which blinds them from showing true love themselves. Hence, Ephesians’ comment that “They have lost all sensitivity” (v.19), such that they are unable to show love with the sensitivity of God. This is characterised by the fact that they “have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity” (v.19).
Now this requires a bit of teasing out from a queer perspective, since there is a temptation to say that this is simply about sex, its being bad, and especially some forms of sex, and to simply move on. But this is not the point Ephesians is trying to make. The problem that the “Gentiles” face in having “abandoned themselves to licentiousness” (v.19) is not necessarily that they are doing things they shouldn’t be. It is that, because they have “abandoned themselves”, they are no longer acting as honest and responsible moral agents, acting with integrity, but are acting in “licentiousness” in the true sense, without any thought for what their actions mean.
One thing that must be said for queer people is that we think about sex a heck of a lot. We have to think about our relationships and what we do with our bodies at great length, because the Church, whatever its faults, and whatever its motivation, makes us do this. And the result of that, I think, is that queer people in the Church often have a far less licentious approach to relationships than often do their straight brethren. We think, we agonise, we pray and we discuss. And in so doing, we aim to act and love with integrity. And this is exactly what Ephesians commends us to do.
And another element of this verse is that the “Gentiles” are “greedy to practice every kind of impurity” (v.19). Now, again we are used as queer people to being categorised in many and diverse ways as ‘impure’, but Ephesians doesn’t put the emphasis on that way of looking at relationships. Rather, the emphasis is on the Gentiles’ greed. The line that is being drawn here is not between impure acts and pure ones. Rather, it is between the desire for relationships with integrity and with the love of God at their heart, and relationships that are very little more than the search for the next high, or the next novelty.
Like many young people of my generation, my growing into my sexual identity was driven largely by what I had access to on the internet. My desire as a young person was to understand new things, to explore what was possible, and of course the next step was to try to find people with whom to try out those new things. When I look at the people I dated as a young person, and how those relationships developed, I am astounded at the extent to which my participation in those relationships was driven by the potential for new experiences and trying out things. And I am astounded at how little at times I was directed by my relationship with the actual person involved.
Now I was never one for casual encounters or short term things, but I certainly did have my priorities in the wrong place. And I can see the difference when I started dating more mature people, being more mature myself. And I can see an enormous difference between those relationships and the Christian fellowship that characterises my relationship with my current boyfriend. And so I get completely what Ephesians means by saying, “That is not the way you learned Christ!” (v.20). The focus is really not on the “greed” for new things, and our relationship is not characterised by a sort of “licentiousness” that says anything goes whether or not we honour God, our neighbours or ourselves. Rather, in “all sensitivity” we try to live a Christian life with integrity.
And this is the challenge that Ephesians offers to us as queer people: How do we lead a Christian life with integrity? With Christ at the centre, mindful of the Good News at all times, sensitively doing all things for the love of God, our neighbour and ourselves. And not in ignorance, greed, self-abandonment or licentiousness. I think that’s something we can all work on, whether we are queer or not!
Clothed With New Life
21For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. 22You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, 23and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
The second part of this section fleshes out this idea of what Christian integrity means. The core of living the Christian life in God is remembering that “surely you have heard about him and were taught in him” (v.21). As Christians, the thing that sets us apart is that we have heard and been taught about Jesus, and this matters because “truth is in Jesus” (v.21). Jesus is the barometer for all our integrity. It is against him that we measure our faithfulness, to him and to the people God has created and called us to be. This goes beyond What Would Jesus Do? and touches what would Jesus think, or ask, or relate to here. If we are, as Ephesians has been arguing throughout, made one in Christ, brought into a profound union with him and with one another through him, this will affect everything that we do, think and are. As Christians, queer or otherwise, Jesus is not a bystander in our lives and relationships.
And that welcoming in of Christ into our lives does, for each one of us, entail changes. But notice how the practical changes are integrally linked to the identity change. “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self” (v.22). Ephesians suggests that you can’t become a Christian by merely changing what you do, and you can’t live as a Christian whilst behaving seeming entirely the same.
But this MUST be read in light of what has gone before. Remember that we can’t read this giving up of old life out of context. What Ephesians is worried about is that Christians might carry in living in ignorance, greed, self-abandonment and licentiousness. That this continues to be the overriding concern is shown by the characterisation of “your former way of life, your old self” (v.22) as “corrupt and deluded by lusts” (v.22). As in vv.18-19, the lack of understanding and knowledge of Christ is tied up with greed, or lust, and lack of integrity, or corruption.
What this is contrasted with, is the call for Christians “to be renewed in the spirit of your minds” (v.23). The way in which Christians learn to live with integrity is by the love and knowledge at work, by the Holy Spirit, in our very minds. This is a work of prayer and conscious thought and wrestling with the questions of what it means to live with integrity as queer Christians, but where God is involved, it is most definitely possible.
The fact that Ephesians does not expect us to become something we are not is worth emphasising. So often we as queer Christians are told to portray ourselves as something we are not, or actually to conform, to become something we are not, by prayer or programme. Rather than casting our selves away (remember that in v.19 Ephesians saw self-abandonment as something the “Gentiles” did), we are called to “clothe yourselves with the new self” (v.24). Our new identity in Christ is a clothing which honours all that was best, all that was good, true and loving about our old selves. And it takes us beyond ourselves, pulling our selves along on a new path.
For Ephesians ends this section with the affirmation that we are called once more, as at the beginning, to be “created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (v.24). Becoming Christian does not require us to give up our identities, our cultures or our integrity. Rather, clothed with a new self in addition to our old, we are called to discern wisely and in love… how to live with integrity as Christians as well as who we already were.
Once I was a queer. But now I am a Christian… Oh, and still a queer.