Your support is needed to help ProgressiveChristianityorg. We need to reach our year-end fundraising goal that will determine what we can do for 2023. If you have already donated, thank you! If you have not donated yet, please do so today. There is so much more we can do and offer our readership with your support! DONATE NOW!

Towards Reclaiming the Symbol of the Family of God: Presentation on Identity and Sexuality

When we were given this topic, we were pretty confused as to what to discuss. Identity is part of sexuality and sexuality is part of identity — both are big topics. So Chris and Jim talked and faxed back in forth for a few days to help us focus. Jim told us that this topic was based on the concerns of those who felt that core parts of their identities, especially their gender or sexual orientation, had been devalued, denied or excluded within much of the Christian tradition. So rather than talk about gender roles, gay and lesbian issues, etc., we decided to talk about what we saw as the basic concern in all of this – belonging, i.e., can I belong in a community and have my identity and sexuality supported and upheld? In our brief comments, we hope to give you a few building blocks on which to focus further discussion.

Identity can have two aspects; personal identity and social identity. The first involves how the individual is known to herself or himself, and is one of the many ways we think of the self, such as the self image or self-concept (Wolfe, 1995). The second form of identity is how the individual is known to the community, not only in terms of his or her own characteristics, but also the attributes, behaviors and roles that the community prescribes or allows for that individual. Belonging in a group always involves a tension between our personal identity, our own sense of self, and our social identity which reflects the claims of our family or community through prescribed roles and behaviors. The lifelong process of working with this tension is often seen as a search for identity, and how we approach resolving this tension depends a lot on the type of belonging we are in.

The family is both a symbol for, and a concrete manifestation of, belonging. The problems of identity and sexuality can be seen as problems in the functioning of a family — in this case churches and congregations that have difficulty in supporting individuals in the expression of their identity and sexuality.

When Jesus referred to those who do the will of God as his Sisters and Brothers, he was using the Family as a symbol for the relationships not only between us and God, but just as importantly, as a symbol for our relationships with each other (Verna Dozier and Jim Adams pointed this out in their book Sisters and Brothers). Jesus was using a metaphor that could be universally understood, and that was both readily grasped, yet profound in its implications.

Paul extends the Family metaphor in his Epistles by using the analogy of Adoption — The Episcopal Church uses language in the Baptism ritual that could be seen as implying adoption — using the phrase “Welcome this person into the Household of God.” The image of an adoptive family seems to fit in several ways. Humans may be children of God by being born, but their joining of a faith community is more of a choice. Adoptive families tend to be more diverse, and tend to have more direct experiences in coping with the challenges of creating belonging and dealing with difference. They also involve a conscious commitment to deal with these issues.

At the same time, the whole process of creating an adoptive family raises many concerns about identity and belonging; concerns not unlike those we are all faced with: Three professionals who work with adoptive families (Anderson, Piantanida, and Anderson, 1993) list the questions about identity and belonging that an adopted child will likely have as she or he reaches adolescence:

  • Who am I and how did I get here?
  • If someone else could give me away, will these people do the same?
  • Who is my family, really?
  • Where and to whom do I belong?
  • Who looks like me?
  • Are there other people like me?
  • Do I have brothers and sisters out there somewhere?

How do families and communities support (or inhibit) the individual in his or her search for belonging and identity? We are going to briefly describe one perspective on how families function – because we see it as analogous to Church life – which may clarify some of the challenges we face in trying to promote inclusiveness in our own “families.”

Family functioning refers to how well it is “doing” its tasks. Family tasks include provision of basic survival and shelter and safety, dealing with the sometimes competing needs of its members, and providing a framework for dealing with life transitions – growth, change and loss. A family’s competence can be measured according to how well it is accomplishing these tasks and facing these challenges at a given time. An optimally functioning family is one that succeeds in family tasks and promotes the growth and well-being of its individual members.

Families can be understood in how they handle universal concerns of control, power and intimacy — that is how well they maintain coherence and structure, have a sense of who is in charge of what and at what time, and provide members with feelings of connection trust and support. The psychiatrist, Robert Beavers (Beavers and Hampson, 1993) has developed a model of family functioning — and I believe that it can be used to understand communities as well.

The model has five levels – at the lowest, the system is chaotic. Control is often absent, or gained occasionally through threat or intimidation. There are no rules, or rules change unpredictably. Power is also absent — members can feel helpless and despairing. Intimacy is usually impossible — there is no trust or empathy to build intimacy. These families can’t organize around goals, resolve ambivalent feelings or deal with loss or transition. Children in these families rarely experience or express any sense of individual identity, and are sometimes the object of physical and sexual abuse.

At the next level (borderline), some control is achieved, but usually through tyrannical means — rules are often inflexible, with a black and white quality, and maintained through threat and intimidation. Power resides in the head of the family, but this situation eventually leads to painful power struggles when someone else needs to express their autonomy. Not only are behaviors and choices rigidly suppressed to maintain control, individual feelings and thoughts are as well. This suppression tends to preclude intimacy and there is little trust. One is either all right or all wrong, all good or all bad. There is no place for the expression or even the experiencing of a more personal spiritual self. Sometimes charismatic leaders can take over a religious community and operate like this.

At the midrange level, control is achieved by moving the tyrant inside the individual — Maggie Scarf refers to the “Invisible Referee,” Efforts to control thoughts and feelings as well as behavior refer to rules for behavior and cultural stereotypes, especially regarding gender. Power is often derived the threat of loss of attachment – if you loved me, you wouldn’t think or behave in that way. The threat of shame and guilt keeps members in line. “You shouldn’t think that way… girls can’t … men don’t …” At this level families and communities have moved out of chaos and tyranny to a situation in which stability is rigidly maintained. Individual identity is supported, but only to the extent that it may conform to the rules and stereotypes. Real intimacy is difficult, because in these families closeness and control have been tied together — individuals won’t reveal their inner thoughts for fear of manipulation or shame. Because people are considered basically bad and untrustworthy, the rules (which are seen as having a self-evident or “god-given” quality) take precedence over individual feelings. As a result, members in these families have difficulties confronting ambivalence, or dealing with paradox.

At the fourth level are Adequate families in which there exists more intimacy, flexibility and openness to individuality. Adequate level families are less likely to maintain control through intimidation than midrange ones, but there is still more sex-role stereotyping (and loss of intimacy) than in Optimal families. However, “… rules are no longer seen as engraved in stone, they are seen as human rules, made by fallible human beings — and can come into question and undergo change.” (Scarf, 1995, p. 35) Adequate families can be seen as sometimes showing optimal levels of relating and sometimes midrange levels.

Within Optimal Families power is in the hands of the parents who have an egalitarian coalition and children are able to be heard fully and influence decisions. Conflicts are usually resolved through negotiation and dialogue, with very little overt power struggles. When fearful, members seek closeness and support rather than control. Control is only occasionally authoritarian. Intimacy, the sharing of one’s true self, is supported by the presence of trust and empathy. Members of these families show both a capacity and respect for autonomy and people can make mistakes and change their minds without blame. Flexibility is the norm. Family members relate with openness, warmth, and empathy. Unlike midrange families, people are often accepted in their differences, and understood to be struggling to do right rather than as inherently hostile or destructive. Members of these families hold “significant transcendent values” that enables them to take perspectives of hope in the face of change and loss.

When family researchers look at how families function, i.e., how competently they handle tasks, challenges, and conflicts, rather than how families are structured, the encouragement and support of individuality and difference emerges as a key factor In other words, what is important is how people treat each other within families rather than who they are or how they appear. Family researcher, Froma Walsh (Walsh, 1993) lists the processes these ‘healthy’ or ‘optimal’ families use:

  • Connectedness and commitment–members in a caring and mutually supportive unit
  • Respect for individual differences, autonomy, and separate needs–this fosters the development and well-being of each member
  • For couples, being respectful and supportive of each other, sharing equitable power and responsibilities.
  • Effective parental/executive leadership and authority to nurture, protect, and socialize
  • Organizational stability, with clarity, consistency and predictability
  • Adaptability and flexibility–to better meet stresses and change
  • Open communication characterized by clarity of rules and expectations, positive interactions, and a range of emotional expression and empathic responsiveness
  • Effective problem-solving and conflict-resolution processes
  • A shared belief system that enables trust, and promotes ethical values and concern for the larger human community
  • Adequate resources for security and psychosocial support

Each of these processes reinforces the others and all of these may be organized and expressed in very different ways dependent on the configuration of the family. Each family is unique and will invent its own “blend” of optimal processes.

In our work as therapists we are always trying to help individuals, couples or families change toward more optimal functioning. In our experience, what often seems to precipitate change, especially in midrange, rulebound families, is some sort of crisis that threatens the rules. Sometimes families can achieve a higher level of functioning while getting through that crisis, but there is also a risk that the family will retreat into more ruleboundedness, or devolve to an even lower level of functioning. One example is what can happen in a family when a homosexual child decides to “come out.” Some families will find this an opportunity to examine their preconceptions about gender roles, identity and sexuality in such a way that a deeper intimacy and involvement comes about, whereas others can become more split, with increased blaming, denial and polarization. We feel the challenges of identity and sexuality currently faced in our churches are analogous to these family crises, and that the potential outcomes of either growth or retreat are similar.

We want to leave you with three questions to consider for discussion this morning:

How can we belong in our family as we are? Including our identity and sexuality?

How can we support one another in our search for and expressions of our identity and sexuality?

How can we do these things and still hold our family together? (i.e., can we find ways to hold ourselves and others accountable in this search without falling into chaos or rigidity?)

for additional copies of this presentation, contact: Dr. Suzan Stafford, 4025 Connecticut Ave., NW Washington, D.C. 20008. 202-364-8130


Adams, James R. So You Can’t Stand Evangelism?: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Church Growth. Cowley Publications, Boston, MA 1994.

Anderson, S., Piantanida, M., & Anderson, C. “Normal Processes in Adoptive Families”, in Normal Family Processes, 2nd Edition. Ed. Walsh, Froma. Guilford Press, New York, 1993.

Beavers, W. R. & Hampson, R. B. “Measuring Family Competence: The Beavers Systems Model.” Normal Family Processes, 2nd Edition. Ed. Walsh, Froma. Guilford Press, New York, 1993.

Dozier, Verna J. & Adams, James R. Sisters and Brothers: Reclaiming a Biblical Idea of Community. Cowley Publications, Boston, MA, 1993.

Scarf, Maggie. Intimate Worlds. Random House, New York, 1995.

Walsh, Froma. “”Conceptualization of Normal Family Processes” in Normal Family Processes, 2nd Edition. Ed. Walsh, Froma. Guilford Press, New York, 1993.

Wolfe, Barry E., PhD. “”Self Pathology and Psychotherapy Integration”, Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, Vol 5, No. 4, 1995.

Resource Types: Articles.

Review & Commentary