Beliefs Culture Institutions Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Opinion

Evangelical pastor of church in ‘gay mecca’ speaks out about identity

Dave Lomas, pastor of Reality San Francisco, wants to help people find their true identity. - Photo courtesy of Dave Lomas
Dave Lomas, pastor of Reality San Francisco, wants to help people find their true identity. - Photo courtesy of Dave Lomas

Dave Lomas, pastor of Reality San Francisco, wants to help people find their true identity. – Photo courtesy of Dave Lomas

Dave Lomas is pastor of Reality San Francisco, a congregation located near the Castro District, a neighborhood often referred to as America’s “gay mecca.” When he speaks about identity and desire, people listen.

That’s exactly what Lomas has done in his most recent book, “The Truest Thing about You: Identity, Desire, and Why it All Matters.” In it, he argues that many labels comprise a person’s identity–parent, introvert, victim, student, single. While these are all true monikers that describe someone, he encourages people to ask a deeper and somewhat provocative question: “What does God think is the truest thing about you?” Here, Dave and I discuss identity, self-worth, and how his ideas relate to the people in his community with various sexual orientations.

RNS: Your book is built around this idea about the truest thing about you. What is that, and why does it matter?

DL: What I try to show in the book is that the truest thing about you is as simple as it is profound. We are all humans created in the image of God. If that’s the case, we don’t make our identity; we receive it. But what does that look like? And what happens when our identity gets terribly messed up? The promise of Jesus is a restoration of our true and given identity, but too often we operate out of what we think is truest about us, like pain, loss, failure, body image. Those things may be true, but they are not truest. That’s what I hope this book helps people see.

RNS: But is there really harm in allowing our identities to be formed around other possibilities, such as “student” or “entrepreneur” or “extrovert”?

DL: The problem is that we’re mistaking parts for the whole, and we’re getting a distorted picture of who we are. We may know intellectually that we are more than what we do, for example, or who we’re attracted to, and none of us want to be defined so narrowly. The problem is that many of us function as if being an “extrovert” was the truest thing about us. When the extrovert can’t find friends, she questions her entire identity. When the entrepreneur can’t create, he loses his sense of self. We are more than these things, and we know it, but we’ve got to start believing it.

Image courtesy of David C. Cook

Image courtesy of David C. Cook

RNS: You mentioned “who we are attracted to.” You pastor in San Francisco near the Castro district. So many people today–not just in your community–defined their identity by their sexual orientation. How do your ideas inform conversations about sexual identity?

DL: We actually started the church right in the heart of the Castro. We love the people here. I try to say from the pulpit that the truest thing about you is not who you are attracted to. The church is partially to blame in making someone’s sexual orientation the truest thing about them. When someone we know comes out as gay, one of the first thoughts we have is, “Well, how are you going to be a Christian and still go to our church?” And with that question we’ve just made their orientation more true than their identity in Christ. The Gospel teaches that you are more than who you are attracted to, just like you are more than your job or your past or your successes and failures. Your identity in Christ is always the truest thing about you. So following Jesus means to take everything in our lives and submit it to Christ.

RNS: There’s a lot of talk about identity in the church these days. When we bring that identity-obsession into faith, doesn’t faith—which is essentially God-focused—become me-centered?

DL: Now that’s a good question! I honestly had the biggest struggle writing a book about “me.” I agree with you on one hand, but I think the “me” we are supposed to forget is the false self. The true self needs to realized. That’s what I think a lot of the New Testament is  getting at. Like when Paul says that I no longer live but Christ lives in me. He still says “me.” Christ lives in “me”—and that’s the real me. That’s why he goes on to say, “The life I now live…” See, there is still a life that “I” have to live. But it’s not the self-consumed me. Rather, it’s the “me” that God created in the garden and was recreated on the cross. The real and truest “me.”

RNS: These “identity” conversations often revolve around our inherent worthiness. But I know my identity is much more complicated and even messy than that. Do you deal with the rougher parts of who we are?

DL: When you say “our inherent worthiness” I hear you saying we try to find our worth in the things we do or who we think we are. But when we define ourselves by what we do, or what we have, or what we desire, it can lead to identity crisis—especially because we aren’t always “worthy” in those areas. We are, I think, a collection of someones. [tweetable]The Christian life means making who we are in Christ the most fundamental layer of our identity.[/tweetable] So the rougher parts of who we are can often still be true about us, yet there is a voice louder, more filled with love and truth. The truest voice says we are ultimately “beloved” by God.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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  • What a great interview Jonathan. I enjoyed it very much. What David says makes so much sense. I fall into the trap of listening to the lies of the enemy or what really defines me is X. I will definitely be getting David’s book and reading it. Thanks for another great article Jonathan.

  • Great interview, Jonathan.

    David, your comment about how we mistake the parts for the whole really hit me. This is probably a good reason we should look to Jesus for wholeness, not to ourselves or anywhere else.

    Reality SF’s neighborhood is just a few minutes from where I grew up and I remember the Castro District well from the 70s and 80s. I think that experience is what has shaped my gay/lesbian relationships.

    By the way, my son attended Reality SF while at Cal, commuting every Sunday morning from Berkeley to San Francisco. We joined him a few times, and from what I saw of your preaching (which is rich and edifying, by the way) and the corporate worship atmosphere, I got the distinct impression that everything that went on was intended to point people to Jesus and not the folks up front. From that, I can definitely see how you would struggle with writing a book about yourself. But I’m glad you did.


  • There is nothing more damaging than making anything but Christ your identity. Sadly many gay people make gay their identity and then desperately look for validation. More sadly is some people actually validate their flawed identity.

  • just downloaded! Thank You…what incredible timing..Gods’ timing!! Amen Brother Jackie God Bless

  • Interesting. I’d be interested to see where he takes this in the book. I’ve seen a lot of writings on identity that simply spend all their time telling you what you aren’t and then sort of conclude with a simple “Jesus is your identity,” when this truth is what really needs to be expounded upon the whole time.

  • It is refreshing to read some clear thinking about the Bible and Christianity. It is maddening to hear so many preachers get identity all wrong by focusing on performance and failures rather than Christ’s finished work of making us into a Child of the King.

    Read my book Healing Release of the Holy Spirit for more on this.

  • I’m a little confused because the bible says in Genesis 2:24, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” The bible never talks about homosexuality as being accepted by God. I believe the bible says that it is a sin and we should love the sinner but hate the sin. I feel like it’s like an alcoholic being attracted to his drink, it’s justifiable in someone’s mind, but it’s wrong in the mind of Christ. Are homosexuals just asking for God’s approval?

  • Love the article; especially grateful that Dave has written this book. I just wish the title of this article that shows up when shared, did not use the phrase “gay mecca”. What Dave and his church are doing moves beyond the buzzwords of pop culture and LGBT drama and into the simplicities of doing life and loving genuinely.

  • Ok. So you pull from the Old Testament. My question to you is do you wear clothes made from different materials? So you sleep with your wife during her period? In short. Do you follow all the laws laid out in the OT? You can’t pick and choose. And to say that homosexuality is a love the sinner hate the sin situation is to ignore the fact that it is not a choice.

  • None of our various and sundry inclinations toward sin are a “choice.” Our choice is whether to indulge them or resist them.

    The “pick and choose” theme is old and tired. It was addressed and settled by Torah-observant Christian Jews during the first few years of the early Church and recorded in Acts 15. And please note that the scripture states that God judged and rejected the Canaanites for sexual transgressions long before there was ever a Torah to “pick and choose” from. There was a far more ancient standard than that.

  • I’ve got lots of identities. I’m gay. I’m a Christian. I’m a husband and a father. I’m a social worker. I’m a blogger. I’m an American and an Iowan and a Hawkeye.

    I think you’ll find that we all wear multiple hats.

  • The Bible never actually condemns pedophilia, either. Or abortion. Or slavery. Even rape is treated with much more leniency in the book of Leviticus than what our godless, secular culture would permit. So, either the Bible is a great guideline for what sort of sins God will or won’t accept (in which case, we should lay off of those creepy priests), or the Bible’s main purpose is to show us who God is.

    I think it’s the latter. I hope it’s the latter, because it is pretty pathetic to see people try to do the whole song-and-dance around patently morally offensive crimes which the Bible never mentions, just so that they can draw attention to the few sins which the Bible does mention.

  • Seriously? Once again, we all possess multiple identities and labels. It doesn’t matter if one’s a Christian or not, or heterosexual or not. If that’s what I’ve proven, then so be it.

  • He must have read “Immortal Diamond”by Rev. Richard Rohr. He already said all that stuff, but with much more depth and insight.

  • No we choose what we make as our identities. You have mischosen and that not only hurts you but also those around you. Sad.

  • Its tired for you because it is the most compelling argument against the holier than though nonsense people employ when using religion to excuse bigoted hateful actions. When Christians want to ignore Jesus’s messages and act like those who crucified him.

    Christians only refer to the Old Testament when they want to sound tough but always opt out of it when its inconvenient. They also woefully misinterpret what various codes of conduct are meant for. Even people who live and breathe all of its rules and laws, acknowledge the level of “give” in all of its rules. [Entire volumes are written about the debates about the conflict of religious law and practical life]

    The inflexible application of Old Testament rules and using them as excuses for acting badly towards others (as many Christians are want to do) misreads how it was meant to be considered.

    “Don’t do unto others what you would not want do to you – that is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary”, Rabbi Hillel. [written while Jesus was still in short pants]

  • THAT is the most compelling argument? LOL! That miust be why people keep clinging to it and trotting it out like an amulet even after having the falsity of it repeatedly and patiently explained to them.

    Rabbi Hillel did not come up with the Golden Rule, BTW. Both he and Jesus took it from Leviticus, the book everyone loves to hate. You can find it in the chapter immediately preceding the chapter which contains the laws about sexual immorality that Jesus said makes us unclean (see Matt. 15:19).

  • The very nature of this page demonstrates the limitations of such a forum. What’s missing from the arguments on both sides is context. And there’s little room for context here. Those who argue in favor of homosexuality vis’a’vis the bible, reject Leviticus, those who decry homosexuality as a sin perhaps lean too heavily on Leviticus. There are at least a handful of references in the New Testament which condemn homosexuality; Those who favor homosexuality argue(with little evidence) that those condemnations are taken out of context. Equally,abortion is not mentioned as such in the bible, but sufficient references to prenatal humanity exist to counter that argument. Dig Deeper into the organic whole of the Bible.

  • People base their identity on many different things which do reflect the many hats or roles we play in life. We also can tend to pick one or more of these as more defining than others and which become foundational for how we view ourselves in the world. We can also expect that others respond to and treat us according to that self-identity. It then becomes easy to see how this can create conflict or judgment when others don’t respond how we think they should or don’t accept us on our terms. The author is posing a Christian perspective which sees these many identities as the false self in light of an identity which is based in what God says about us. I don’t get that he is saying these identities are wrong or misplaced, but that there is something deeper which should provide that solid foundation from which we see ourselves and operate in the world. As a Christian, God defines our value, worth and purpose – which should bring peace and hope and confidence that we are loved and accepted no matter what others would say.

  • Why would you think that modern era social constructs like “homosexuality” can be so easily backward projected upon ancient societies?

    As for Leviticus…Why would a Gay man today lay with a man…as with a Woman? He wants to lay with a man as with a man. I guess a “straight” man might lay with a man as with a woman, though.

    Judging from the context of Lev. 18, the verse would seem to have been condemning a ritual in the Moloch fertility cult. I’ve read somewheres (wish I could remember here) that there was a ritual in ancient times where a man would lay with a cross-dressing priest to facilitate and offer up to the god his sperm, which was sort of thought of as an unformed child. That would be laying with a man as with a woman, and being an idolatrous ritual, would certain be an “abomination.”

  • This argument is just another grasping at straws. Gay marriage existed in biblical times so there is no new modern construct of homosexuality that is any different.

  • Well the answers typical Bible Thumping Christians give typically smell like week old horsecrap. Its annoying to you because it is a rational argument and it uses the scripture in a way which makes religious based bigots sound ignorant and foolish. There is always some magical twisted logically tortured exception to specific areas of Leviticus that they find inconvenient, yet provisions they want to use as excuses for bigotry always remain inviolate.

    All of which comes with a gross misunderstanding as to how it is actually applied to dealing with people. Since Christians never adopted its provisions as a form of cultural identity, they refuse to open themselves to the debates which came natural to those who did.

    Of course, Rabbi Hillel didn’t come up with the Golden Rule. It is a given to all societies. Reciprocity is the basis of all civilized behavior. But he framed it in a way which puts to shame the notion that adherence to the Old Testament means acting hateful to others. To understand Leviticus is to know that “Love thy neighbor” trumps all other considerations therein. That was Rabbi Hillel’s point. One you missed by a mile.

    For a Christian it also means that we treat all people with love. Sinners and saints alike. All people are sinners, so to treat others badly because they sin is not going to be acceptable. To use the Bible as an excuse to hate thy neighbor is to miss the entire point of both books of it, Old and New.

  • It is not rejection of Leviticus, its understanding how it was supposed to be interpreted. Christians always miss the point on those rules. They look for excuses not to follow them unless they want to sound tough in public.

    Laws based on Leviticus have been codified for centuries. Unlike the typical ignorant Christian approach, there are tons of debates on meaning and application. Ones that leave no room for violating the primary notion of “love thy neighbor”.

    Anyone with a good faith interest in the actual texts involved would not construe it as a condemnation of homosexuality in the modern sense. It would be seen as a ban against religiously inspired rape, upsetting the relationship between slaves and master, and treating strangers badly.

    But that doesn’t go well with people who want excuses to act like bigots in public and use religion to avoid social sanction for such beliefs.

  • Larry I hate to break this to you but bring that argument up make YOU look like the fool.

    That argument is no threat to the actual truth.

  • What makes this particular argument annoying, Larry, is the same thing that makes a child’s whining and arguing so annoying: it springs from ignorance. People who continually return to this line of argument have no understanding of the context of Leviticus’ historical context or the way the Jews understood it from ancient times throughout the entire Talmudic era, as it related to both themselves and to non-Jews. No understanding of the Mishnah or the Gemara, the Midrash, the Noahide laws. No familiarity with Philo or Josephus. Not even any real understanding of what the Torah-observant Jerusalem Council decided and how they came to their decisions. As for these “debates” you keep referring to…if it were not for Western society’s modern-day preoccupation with homosexuality there would be no Torah-based “debate” on the subject whatsoever. No condonation of it is to be found anywhere in scripture or in any kind of oral or written Jewish or Christian tradition.

    “To understand Leviticus is to know that “Love thy neighbor” trumps all other considerations therein. That was Rabbi Hillel’s point.”

    That may have been Hillel’s point, but it was not quite Christ’s. The one commandment that “love of neighbor” does not trump is the commandment to love God above all else, including all of God’s purposes and designs for His creation. This is why Jesus rejected Hillel’s easy acceptance of divorce, for example (which many then and now considered the more “compassionate” view), as well as the many other pharisaic oral traditions which had the effect of nullifying the written Torah.

    “For a Christian it also means that we treat all people with love.”

    No argument there. But it isn’t love to celebrate what’s wrong as if it were right. As I recall, John the Baptist did no harm to anyone but he had no moral choice but to call people to repentance, and to shoot straight with the apostate king about the unlawfulness of his so-called marriage, even at the expense of his life. This was the guy that Jesus called the greatest of all men born of women up until Himself.

  • There is no evidence in any oral or written tradition that Leviticus was ever understood that way, Gregory. Every Jewish commentary on the subject indicates that a man lying with a man means exactly what common-sense tells us it means, i.e. lying with a man in a sexual manner. The Midrash even mentions same-sex marriage existing in very ancient times.

    It always strikes me as funny that Leviticus defines homosexuality in almost the exact same way as my parents and those of most of my friends explained it to us when we asked about it as children: “Well, it’s like a man and a woman, only it’s a man with a man.” Almost as if God were talking to His children in baby-talk and they STILL get it wrong–deliberately.

  • Actually it has always been the Christians who have read far more into it than what was actually said. The prohibition on homosexual conduct had nothing to do with it being inherently sinful than it did with being a foreign practice. Treated with the same level of seriousness as forgoing kosher practices. “Abomination” is the term used in the 17th Century translations.

    Outside of the Orthodox sect, the overwhelming majority of the Jewish clergy and adherents does not find such things to be sinful.
    Of course like all people on the extreme end of religious belief, the Orthodox feel their views are the only acceptable ones. Even in Biblical times Levitical law was always tempered by an over arching notion of doing what is not harmful to others. It was never used as an excuse to treat people as less than human, as you would have it.

    What is funny is how Christians always want to play little rhetorical games and contortions to avoid the areas of Leviticus they find inconvenient but to hold people to the ones which make them sound tough.

    Anything to weasel out of the “love thy neighbor” ideal which gives Christianity any relevance. The more you want to get away from that, the more people will find your version of Christianity, useless and harmful. In the end nobody does a better job of promoting atheism than a religious zealot.

  • Speaking of games….

    There is no love ins supporting sinful behavior of which the bible defines never more clearly than with sexuality.

    Amazing what straws people will try to grasp to affirm their sinfulness.

  • “Treated with the same level of seriousness as forgoing kosher practices.”

    The Torah doesn’t even specify any penalties for breaking kosher, except for the consumption of the life blood which was considered particularly disrespectful. And while the Jews imposed various penalties for breaking kosher it was certainly never treated as a capital offense. Homosexual behavior, and some other forms of sexual immorality, were capital offenses. And in any case, although there’s no indication that Jesus violated any dietary regulations He did say quite distinctly in Matthew 15 that they were of far lesser importance than evil behaviors that proceed from the heart, such as sexual immorality and others, that render us spiritually unclean.

    You seem to have a thing about us “wanting to sound tough.” I’m not sure exactly what you’re on about. I certainly have no desire to sound “tough.” If it were up to me personally, I’d vote for homosexual behavior not being a sin and make the whole annoying issue go away. But nobody asked me, or you, and the scriptures tell us that we are to trust God’s direction in these things instead of leaning to our own corrupt human understanding.

    “What is funny is how Christians always want to play little rhetorical games and contortions to avoid the areas of Leviticus they find inconvenient…”

    I have already, patiently and in detail, explained to you that the decision about how much of the Law to require of Gentile Christians was NOT made by those Gentile Christians to avoid “inconvenience” but by Torah-observant Christian JEWS to whom it was not inconvenient in the slightest. And there were no “games or contortions” involved; the matter is discussed at length and quite plainly in Acts 15 for anyone who cares to look at it.

    See what I mean by complete ignorance of scriptural and historical context???

  • Actually the conduct which were capital offenses were more akin to homosexual rape and forgetting to treat one’s male concubines with the proper measure of authority. Even the way it is applied and translated in modern language doesn’t fit the mold of what people refer to as homosexuality. Idolatry and adultery were treated far worse and have many more mentions within both testaments than the sparse overly skewed sentences on homosexuality.

    Stretching consensual homosexual relations to fit under immoral conduct is to exaggerate and alter the purpose and meanings of the texts to fit your agenda. Anything to find an escape clause from “Love thy neighbor” and to treat others as less than people. You freely admitted that even ancient views of the Torah and Leviticus were hardly inflexible. If one were using them to justify treating others badly, as you would do, it lost their purpose.

    “I have already, patiently and in detail, explained to you that the decision about how much of the Law to require of Gentile Christians was NOT made by those Gentile Christians to avoid “inconvenience” but by Torah-observant Christian JEWS to whom it was not inconvenient in the slightest. ”

    No you made self-serving remarks. Your ignorance of your own religion is duly noted. The forgoing of Levitical customs came long after the fact when Gentiles became the majority of Christ’s followers. Christians pick and chose which parts of the Old Testament they want to emphasize against others and always try to cough up escape clauses when it comes to applying it to themselves.

  • The forgoing of most Levitical practices, again, came only a short time after the death of Christ, when the Jewish Jerusalem church was the core of the fledgling faith and Gentile converts were a new and unprecedented phenomenon. And again, it was a matter decided by Torah-observant JEWS. Acts. 15. Why is it so difficult for you to get your mind around this simple fact?

    “Actually the conduct which were capital offenses were more akin to homosexual rape and forgetting to treat one’s male concubines with the proper measure of authority. Even the way it is applied and translated in modern language doesn’t fit the mold of what people refer to as homosexuality.”

    To put it briefly, hogwash. This is self-serving nonsense that has been invented out of whole cloth within only the last generation. It has no scriptural or historical support whatsoever. One need look no farther than Flavius Josephus, who received the same religious and legal training as the apostle Paul, to discover exactly how Jews understood their laws during the time of Christ: “But then, what are our laws about marriage? That law owns no other mixture of sexes but that which nature has appointed, of a man with his wife, and this for the procreation of children. But it abhors the mixture of a male with a male; and if anyone do that, death is his punishment.” –Against Apion, Book 2 25:199. And as already noted, the Midrash Rabbah Genesis and the Babylonian Talmud both make reference to same-sex marriage having existed and having been judged by God in pre-Noahide times. Whether one believes that it did or not, these writings nevertheless make it quite clear that the Jews did not see consensuality as any kind of excuse for same-sex behavior.

  • So does this mean this church is gay-affirming or not? There’s nothing worse than a lot of “walking around the truth” on these pages. Either you accept that gay/lesbians/trans folk are ok, normal and perfect just the way they are or you don’t.

  • And the scientific evidence that homosexuality is not a choice is exactly what? The gay gene thing of the 90’s proved to be a hoax. What is the evidence that gay is anything but a compulsion created by various social factors?

  • The New Testament condemns homosexuality several times. What is the rationale for now making those comments null and void?