by JR Rozko
(Editor’s note: This is the 3rd in a 9-part series on Finding Our Gospel Voice in a Changing Culture.)
If we were sitting down over coffee in the neighborhood café I am writing this from, and if we were trading stories about unexpected events from our past that have left an indelible mark on us, what might come to mind for you? I’m sad we can’t share that coffee (especially because it would be delicious Metropolis Coffee, roasted right here in Chicago!), but I want to share a story that comes to mind for me. It’s one that I believe is especially pertinent to the questions and challenges the American Church is facing with respect to engaging issues such as sexual identity and practice.
I was a 16-year-old high school student; a sophomore football player at a large suburban high school in northeast Ohio with a nominally Christian background. I knew precisely where I fit into the social strata of my school. What’s more, I knew precisely where everyone else fit in that same strata.
Those were the major categories of social identity—neat boxes into which everyone fit neatly and conveniently.
At least until one very odd Monday morning.
For about six months leading up to this odd Monday, I had come to be involved with my school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). I say “had come to be involved” because I wasn’t actively seeking anything out—well, except for maybe some more playing time from my coach, who led the meetings. That half a year of involvement culminated in a weekend retreat that was marked by, among other things, Katie Messner “missionary kissing” me (story for another article!) and my first exposure to evangelistic preaching of the more Pentecostal variety. The whole experience could not have felt more foreign to me if everyone had been speaking another language.
Despite the foreignness of my weekend retreat experience, it seems that God was still very much at work. That Sunday night as I lay in bed at home, processing all that I had been learning and feeling over the last six months, I had my first conversation with God.
Giving into the foreignness of all this, I processed my thoughts and prayed out loud. By the end of this conversation, I surrendered my life to the Lord. As I did, I gripped the sides of my bed, expecting something to happen. Lights. Horns. Spinning. Nothing. I thought to myself, It didn’t work.
But then came Monday morning.
I walked into school pretty much like any other day. Tired. Mind-racing with thoughts of encounters I would have throughout the day. Groaning over the thought of football practice that afternoon. And of course, replaying the “missionary kiss” over and over in my head (!).
But as I began to move through the halls, something seemed… off. I looked around at my fellow students, looked them in the eyes. I recognized them, but I didn’t. I saw them, but not the ways I was accustomed to. The labels were gone. The categories seemed unimaginable—stories from a work of fiction that you remember reading, but wish you hadn’t.
I was overcome by the weight of two incredible realities that now seemed to define the identity of my classmates—love and pain. I was seeing all the same people, but for the first time I saw them as unfathomably loved and loveable. At the same time, I felt inexplicably in touch with their pain, almost as though it were mine. The sudden flood of beauty and brokenness positively wrecked me.
I wept. Right there in the middle of the hall, like a little baby, I wept. Right up until the second bell rang announcing we were late for class, I wept. And when I had no more tears, I sauntered off to class in a spiritual daze of confused emotions, yet somehow marked by profound and mysterious peace.
Because of this story, the imago Dei will never be merely a doctrine for me. Even now, as I write about this event 20 years later, I am taken back, in tears, to the moment in that hallway when I was afforded a glimpse into the fullness of what it means for human beings—all of us—to exist as those created in God’s image, yet living under the consequences of sin and evil. That event became a defining moment for how I engaged my peers throughout the rest of high school and beyond. It radically reshaped how I thought about, talked about, and engaged my peers.
As a disciple and Christian leader, this is my starting place for engaging issues of sexual identity and sexual practice. When the temptation comes to reduce people to a label or an issue, I allow the Spirit of God to take me back to the “thin place” of that high school hallway—to the weight of the realities of love and pain that mark us all.
Beholding the imago Dei recalibrates everything about how I engage others, transforming my witness. It reshapes my posture and it changes my questions, but more than anything, it opens me up to others in a way that is more hospitable to the presence of Christ.
Thus, my plea to all of us as we seek to engage those whose convictions and practices in the arena of sexual identity and sexual practice stand at a distance from our own is simply this: let us behold the imago Dei in these friends. Let us open ourselves up to the unfathomable love that God has for those made in God’s own image as well as to the pain that each of us carries on account of sin and evil at work in the world and in our bodies.
Beholding the imago Dei in others doesn’t answer all the important questions before us, but it is the necessary starting place for discerning and engaging these questions.
Beholding the imago Dei in others won’t solve all the political discord the Church finds itself enmeshed in, but it offers an opportunity to navigate it with integrity.
Beholding the imago Dei in others isn’t a guarantee that Jesus is on our side, but it signals our commitment to be on His.
Vitally interested in a missiology of Western culture, JR Rozko (PhD, Fuller) currently directs the work of Missio Alliance and teaches courses through Fuller Theological Seminary. He has spent over 10 years serving in pastoral ministry and the world of theological education, seeking to advance the vision & practice of missional theology.