The Battle for Identity: Why Jonathan Merritt Has Not Been “Outed”

Here’s the story: Jonathan Merritt, son of former Southern Baptist Convention president James Merritt, has become something of a prominent figure among younger evangelicals, primarily because of his engagement with cultural issues such as climate change and homosexuality.

One week ago a self-identified gay evangelical agnostic blogger by the name of Azariah Southworth publicly identified Jonathan Merritt as gay, claiming that, if the need arose, he could verify his claim with evidence.  Just yesterday Southworth posted a video explaining why he decided to “out” Jonathan Merritt.

Two or three days after Southworth’s first post, Merritt responded in an interview posted on Ed Stetzer’s blog.  In this interview, Merritt disclosed two things: first, that he had been sexually abused by an older man when he was a child, and second, that he did engage in sinful behavior of a homosexual nature with Azariah Southworth.  He described the sin as follows:

In 2009, I was contacted by the blogger [Southworth] in response to an article I wrote about just that–that Christians must love people who experience sexual brokenness. We corresponded several times by email and text for a couple of weeks, some of them inappropriate. When I was traveling through a city near him, we met for dinner because we’d corresponded so recently. As we were saying goodbye, we had physical contact that went beyond the bounds of friendship. I was overcome with guilt, knowing I had put myself in an unwise situation. We never saw each other again and we ceased contact after a period of time.

Jonathan subsequently sought out a Christian counselor, and everything else that he said in the interview with Stetzer indicates that he has taken steps of repentance and that he is working to ensure that he remains open and accountable from now on.

Jonathan Merritt has now found himself in a public battle over his own identity.  Azariah Southworth and others want him to identify himself publicly as a gay man, but Merritt disagrees:

I don’t identify as “gay” because I believe there can be a difference between what one experiences and the life that God offers. I’m a cracked vessel held together only by God’s power. And I’m more sure each day that only Christ can make broken people whole.

Of all the cultural and personal battles fought over homosexuality, this is the root question.  So long as we make “sexual orientation” (a uniquely modern category) into the substance of one’s identity, we can be assured that our culture will continue to drift into ever-increasing sexual confusion, pulling large numbers of sexually broken church members with it into the open embrace of sin.  But if we recognize, with Scripture, that our identity in Christ has nothing to do with “sexual orientation” but everything to do with the cross, the empty tomb, and the justified God-man who now reigns over the cosmos, in whose righteousness we share by faith, then there will always be hope for sexually broken people in the church, whether that brokenness takes the form of heterosexual or homosexual sin (or both).

Azariah Southworth thinks he “outed” Jonathan Merritt and forever stamped his identity according to a certain kind of sexual attraction.  But Jonathan Merritt is right: he is not “gay”.  He is a broken, humbled, repentant, justified sinner who is seated with Christ in the heavenly places.  The ultimate “outing” will take place when Christ returns to call Jonathan’s body from the grave, making it plain before creation who Jonathan has been all this time: a son of God, adopted into the family of Abraham, and thus an heir of the world to come.  Mr. Southworth, you have not “outed” anybody, for Jonathan Merritt’s identity has not been determined by any sinful act he has committed.  It has been determined by the justifying verdict of God the Father, spoken through the resurrection of the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Your paltry attempt to rob him of that identity by defining him according to a sinful behavior is sheer nonsense before the divine power that has made him an heir of the kingdom.  “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?  God is the one who justifies.  Who is to condemn?” (Romans 8:33-34)

I neither anticipate nor desire that one day I will occupy a position in the national spotlight, but if that ever were to happen, it would only be a matter of time before some reporter with an axe to grind would pose this question to me: “What would you do if your son ever came to you and told you that he was gay?”  This question has been worn down to the point of cliche by now, but answering it remains a standard rite of passage for every prominent figure who takes on the homosexual agenda in our society.

What would I say?  I would probably say something like this: “You are not gay.  Your sexual brokenness no more determines who you are than my sexual brokenness determines who I am.  Your identity is in Christ.  You may struggle with feelings and urges that cause you to wonder who you are, but your feelings and urges do not determine reality.  God determines reality.”

The greatest victory (and the most vicious lie) of the left in our current culture war is the link between homosexual behavior and personal identity.  This link is what enables progressives to frame this debate as a justice issue and paint their opponents as twenty-first century Jim Crow’s.  The church must not sit by and let it happen to the sexually broken people in our pews.  Let us take up the weapon that God has given us, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and fight this pernicious lie:

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?  Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.  And such were some of you.  But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

About Aaron O'Kelley

Aaron O'Kelley (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a pastor and theological educator who lives in Jackson, Tennessee, with his wife and their three children.
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7 Responses to The Battle for Identity: Why Jonathan Merritt Has Not Been “Outed”

  1. Aaron, you are such a gifted writer and you have such a way of making complicated matters uncomplicated….. Thank you for your words. This has always been a tough subject and you were able to break it down and clearly show where scripture stands and we as Christians should stand.

  2. Cortney, that is very kind of you to say.

    Things will only get increasingly difficult for us as the culture slides leftward. I don’t expect that the kind of argument I have made here will impress anyone who is sold on the sexual-orientation-as-identity position (it will probably infuriate many, in fact). But this is the kind of thing we must be prepared to say to those who are sexually broken and confused about who they are, many of whom are in our churches. Christ will protect his sheep from the lies of our culture.

  3. College Jay says:

    Well, he may not be gay, but he sure as heck ain’t straight.

    Come on, now. This is an issue I personally struggle with, and the fact of the matter is that these words have meaning. I admire Mr. Merritt’s struggle. It’s my own, too, but this isn’t just about how one identifies himself. It’s about making sure that words maintain their meaning in a postmodern society.

    I’m a celibate Christian who happens to struggle with same-sex attraction. In some instances, I don’t mind if the term “gay” is used for me. To me, that word is simply shorthand for “someone who is attracted to the same sex, as opposed to the opposite sex.” I think that’s how most other people view that word, too. It doesn’t say anything about my political ideology, my behavior, my religious views or my identity. It just gives a word to an experience that is a part of my life, just as it is part of Mr. Merritt’s life.

    I think sometimes many conservative Christians, while well-meaning, misunderstand what it’s like to experience homosexual desires. Now, obviously, I’m generalizing here, because everyone is different, but it’s not like a gay person has normal heterosexual desires with homosexual temptations piled on. For the most part, we experience homosexuality in the same way that most straight people experience heterosexuality. It develops at puberty, we start to notice the same gender instead of the opposite gender, etc.

    The only difference, of course, is that heterosexual desires can be directed into a fruitful, godly outlet through marriage. Homosexual desires cannot, and must be struggled against. Now, I understand having a general dislike of sexual labels, but if a heterosexual person told me, “You are not gay,” I’d likely reply with, “Then you are not straight.” Of course my desires and temptations don’t determine my future. But they are definitely a part of my present, and to try to pretend like they aren’t there, or that they don’t affect my life all that much, doesn’t help me or people in my situation at all. It’s just another form of keeping people with sexual issues that fall outside the mainstream silent in the Church.

    Also, I should probably make it clear that there is a big difference between giving certain issues their proper labels — which I am advocating — and letting certain issues dominate the whole of one’s identity. I have certainly seen many men who struggle with homosexuality fall into that latter trap, and many times they weren’t even using the word “gay.” They used the in-house terms like “ex-gay” or “post-gay,” but they ended up having the same divisive effect. I completely understand and agree with the notion that our primary identity should be in Christ. I’m just saying that that shouldn’t stop us from using clear, easy-to-understand terminology to talk about the other issues we may deal with.

  4. Jay,

    I admire you for your firm commitment to celibacy. That is evidence of the Lord’s grace in you, brother. Just three words of response from me, but if you ultimately decide to disregard what I have said here, then I’m fine with that because you seem to be doing fine without having adopted my categories of thought:

    (1) Most of the time (though I suppose I could be wrong), when someone “comes out,” what is meant by that is not merely a public self-identification with same-sex attraction but an open embrace of that identity as a good thing because, hey, “That’s just who I am.” Or, “That’s who God made me.” That is the kind of thing I am mainly concerned to oppose here.

    (2) I don’t mind at all if you want to respond by saying that I am not “straight.” That is a category that only makes sense if we first accept that there is a “gay” identity, which is the very thing I have opposed in this post.

    (3) It seems to me that the most powerful weapon progressives have in this battle is the weapon of language. They have succeeded in creating these categories that cause us to think of same-sex attraction as a matter of one’s ontology, and thus as a characteristic on par with skin color. This is what enables them to paint people like me as “homophobic,” which in modern thought is at the same level as “racism”. I’m not interested in playing that game.

    As I said, take it or leave it. Blessings to you!

  5. College Jay says:

    I actually don’t disagree with you about any of those three points. Number one is certainly true, although I also refer to the times when I’ve opened up about my sexuality as my “coming out.” I had a different goal in mind — I wasn’t seeking acceptance of sin, but help and support in the struggle against it — but there still was a sense of release and peace after I got that secret off my chest. I think if you ever hear that a Christian has “come out,” though, it’s good to not make assumptions. Ask if he or she is embracing homosexual practice and gay leftist ideology, or simply admitting homosexual desires while seeking Christ. In today’s culture war, those latter people can prove to be a powerful and needed voice. I hope more of them “come out.”

    I’ll concede number two gladly. At least you’re consistent, and I respect that greatly.

    One note about number three. The liberal gay elites — and I’m distinguishing them from chaste Christian gays and even secular gay conservatives (and those do exist) — do not consider homosexuality as immutable as race unless there’s a camera around. The likening of homosexuality to race is a talking point for the media. It’s meant to drum up support for same-sex marriage. Go into a lecture hall or a university classroom, though, and gay leftists commonly refer to sexuality as polymorphous, encouraging their students to experiment and explore. They care more about political ideology than actual sexuality. After all, they accept bisexuals if those bisexuals support liberal causes, but if a Christian man puts off homosexual behavior and starts dating a woman, they’ll call him a delusional self-loather, even though he hasn’t behaved any differently than the bisexual.

    So, in other words, you’re allowed to jump around from dating men to women, but only if you accept their ideology of queerness. It’s liberalism they see as the more important facet of identity. Sexuality is just a means to that end. Of course, I’m speaking generally. Not everyone is so overt about it, and most gays would read that and surely go, “Not me! I’m nothing like that!” But it’s trickle-down ideology, and like liberalism in general, decent people start thinking in those talking points without understanding what they mean. Then again, I think that was your point, so I’ll stop now. Thanks for the discussion!

  6. Thank you, Jay. Let me finish up by saying that I agree that honesty in our churches is what is needed, and I wouldn’t anyone to misunderstand what I have said as being in opposition to what you call “coming out” as you seek support from Christian brothers and sisters. If I were in your shoes, I might word things differently, but I think we are on the same page regarding the need for those who struggle with same-sex attraction to enlist support from their churches. In order for that to happen, churches have to become places where people are free to acknowledge themselves as sinners. (Imagine that!)

    This, I suspect, is largely what lies behind the tragedy of Ray Boltz. According to his own story, he struggled for years in the dark, never feeling that he could be honest with his Christian family because of the fear of judgment and marginalization. After he struggled alone for so many years, he simply couldn’t take it any more and finally gave up the fight. Would things have been different for him if he had been part of a church that encouraged openness and offered loving support to all kinds of sinners, including those sins that we Christians still consider “taboo” subjects? Our churches must do better than this.

    Great conversation. Very enlightening, especially the last point you made. Thanks!

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