Our Desires, Our Selves?: Michael S. Horton interviews Sam Allberry

Monday, 31 Aug 2015

'One of the problems is that we've abstracted homosexuality out from our gospel framework and tried to deal with it in a category of its own.'

The question of sexual identity is one of the most hotly debated topics within church and society today, raising important questions about civil rights, social justice, and human identity. Are we defined by our sexual inclinations? Is same-sex preference as intrinsic to our personhood as our gender or ethnicity? How should Christians love their homosexual neighbors while maintaining an orthodox scriptural hermeneutic? People are talking about these issues at their high schools, with their friends, and around the dinner table. Christians need to face them at a place where we’re able to give them hope from the Scriptures. To that end, Editor-in-Chief Michael Horton recently sat down with Sam Allberry, associate pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Maidenhead, England, to talk about his book, Is God Anti-Gay? And Other Questions about Homosexuality, the Bible and Same-Sex Attraction (The Good Book Company, 2015).

You’re not a dispassionate observer on this issue. This is something you’ve been thinking about for a long time because it’s part of your own journey. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
For as long as I’ve had sexual feelings, they’ve been same-sex sexual feelings. That became apparent to me as a teenager going through puberty. It took me a little while to put the pieces together and recognize what was going on. But that has been and continues to be my experience.

You make a distinction between ‘being gay’ versus someone who deals with same-sex attraction. Can you tell us about that distinction?
On one level, the most obvious way to describe myself would be to say I’m gay. But where I come from (and I’m sure it’s similar in the United States), saying you’re gay means much more than just, ‘I experience homosexual feelings.’ To say you’re gay is to say, ‘That is who I am.’ It often implies a lifestyle and an identity that goes with it. I don’t want to communicate all of that. I prefer the language of ‘same-sex attraction.’ It’s slightly clunkier, but it’s more accurate. It’s describing the particular sexual desires I experience, but it’s not claiming that those sexual desires define me as a person.

Some people argue that homosexuality is something you’re born with, while others say it’s an active choice. What is your opinion?
I don’t think it makes a difference. My theology tells me that I was born as a sinner. That means there will be certain sinful proclivities that I have from birth; that I might have them from birth does not make them morally good. There are so many dispositions I have always had that I know are sinful. So even if one day the scientists can prove that some people have a genetic predisposition toward homosexuality, that doesn’t make it right. It is a reflection of the fact that, as Jesus tells us, we need to be born again.

Since Scripture tells us that we’re all born in sin’that it’s a condition before it is a self-chosen action’we shouldn’t be surprised if the Fall has in fact affected us in exactly that way. There are genetic predispositions to any number of sins such as alcoholism or anger.
The fact that it feels natural to me is not a sign of how God has created me; it’s a sign of how sin has distorted me.

Is this a crucial distinction that isn’t part of the discussion today? If it’s natural, in the sense that the way I came out of my mother’s womb is natural, then it has to be the way God created things, rather than the way sin has warped things?
I think so. One writer recently said that we look at things through the lens of Genesis 1 and 2; we don’t look at things through the lens of Genesis 3. We assume that we emerge from the womb innocent and perfect, so anything that can be traced back to the womb must be good. But Genesis 3 reminds us that we emerged from the womb as sinners’it’s not that I sin and therefore I’m a sinner; it’s that I’m a sinner and therefore I sin.

You write, ‘Being Christian makes us no less likely to fall ill, face tragedy or experience insecurity. It’s not un-Christian to experience same-sex attraction any more than it is un-Christian to get sick. What marks us out as Christian is not that we never experience such things, but how we respond to them when we do.’ Have you had pushback from people on comments like that?
It’s certainly an imperfect parallel. The point I was trying to make is that we should expect that we will be impacted as Christians by many aspects of the Fall. It would be peculiar if everything else was tainted by sin except for our sexual desires. My understanding is that all of our sexual desires are tainted by sin. No one has sexual desires that are exclusively pleasing to Christ. The fact that we have desires for people of the same gender is one manifestation of that.

Would you say that you’re not responsible for having those desires per se, but responsible for how you respond to those desires?
I think so. I want to hold a couple of things in tension. As Christians, we make a distinction between temptation and sin. James 1 helps me because it reminds me that we don’t experience any kind of temptation that is something I can pin on somebody else. Those come from my own desires, and I need to take ownership of them. At the same time, in a sense, it’s not as if I have chosen to experience that form of temptation. I would be uncomfortable with the language of saying same-sex attraction is sin. It’s a form of temptation’a temptation coming from within my heart’and therefore I’m to resist it.

You also write, ‘The kind of sexual attractions I experience are not fundamental to my identity. They are part of what I feel, but are not who I am in a fundamental sense. I am far more than my sexuality.’ That’s a huge point. On one hand, you do see this assumption: I have gay friends who think, ‘This is who I am.’ Conservative Christians, on the other hand, are all too happy to say, ‘That is who you are, that is your identity, and I have you pegged.’ How important is this distinction you’re making, that sexuality is inflated as the central core of our identity in this era?
It seems that our own culture is saying, at this particular point in time, that your sexual desires define you, and they are the core of who you are. They are the key to understanding who you are as a human being; and if that’s the case, then those sexual desires become everything. If you’re not fulfilling those sexual desires, then you’re not really fulfilling yourself. You’re not really living properly; you’re not living fully. I think this is a hugely important point for us to make as Christians, that there’s an anthropology being assumed by our culture that is deeply inadequate and actually is harmful to people. To reduce someone or to summarize someone by their sexual desires is woefully inadequate and is not going to lead to human flourishing.

Is that interpretation of same-sex attraction, or of homosexuality, or being gay, akin to a heterosexual promiscuity that says the same thing: ‘Hey, I can’t believe you’re a virgin. How old are you?’
Exactly. So our culture has made sex an idol. It is one of the ways in which we are able to fulfill who we are in the eyes of our culture. It’s one of the ways we self-actualize. To lead a life without sex is at best odd, and at worst dangerously subhuman and unhealthy. There’s a sense in which that worldview has been absorbed by the church; we’ve just given it a bit of a Christian sheen. It’s easy for us to have the same kinds of assumptions and dress them up with Christian language and make sexual fulfillment’through Christian marriage’the goal of our life.

I can hear people on one side remarking, ‘You are saying that this is something you might be stuck with for your whole life,’ and people on the other side with, ‘He’s justifying the idea that a person who has same-sex attraction will never get married and should just be celibate.’ Neither one can be right.
In that way, it’s an interesting time to live in. I have had criticism from both directions; and in my self-justifying kind of way, I think if I’m being criticized from both sides, it must mean I’m balanced and right. It’s the way we British think. Everything is balanced.

There’s a deeper point here about feelings, isn’t there? It’s not just about homosexual desires; it’s about psychosomatic feelings determining our identity.
Our culture doesn’t claim to be consistent on this point. You can have any number of feelings within you, but it is the sexual feelings that are privileged as being definitional. The idea that the heart of who you are is what you feel deep within is reflective of the worldview we live in, and we as Christians too easily adopt this. Jesus himself said it’s what comes out of your heart that defiles you. Christians should have a different understanding of who we are’we don’t look to within ourselves to find true meaning, true fulfillment, true salvation. When we look inside of ourselves we find the problem, not the solution. The Gnostics believed that the body was this horrible thing you were stuck with, that real freedom was in the soul and the spirit. We’ve actually bought into quite a lot of that, even as Christians. Like the Gnostics, we privilege our psychology over our body. We’re ultimately saying that the body is just an accident, it’s just at best a blank canvas on which we can paint our identity, and it’s our feelings (especially our sexual feelings) that define who we really are.

It rather sounds like the conversation centers on an obsession with the body, but you’re saying it’s actually an overemphasis on the psyche. It also appears that there is a movement afoot in the States to talk openly in churches about sexuality’almost as if to say, we’re not those prudish Christians; we love sex. It’s almost as if we’re trying to justify ourselves to the culture by making heterosexual sex a defining part of our identity too.
Yes, and we think we’re solving a problem by doing so. We’re showing that we’re with culture; that we can relate to and understand the topic of sex. We then realize further down the road that we’ve created a whole host of problems, specifically when we make it seem that ‘me and my smokin’ hot wife are the key to fulfillment.’ When someone then turns up in our church and says, ‘I want that same fulfillment by marrying someone of the same gender,’ we suddenly don’t know what to say to them, because we’ve so rearranged the furniture of our theology that we can’t deny them what we’ve been saying is the big point of life for everybody else. One of the problems is that we’ve abstracted homosexuality out from our gospel framework and tried to deal with it in a category of its own. We’ve forgotten that it’s just one type of the condition that all of us experience, which is being people who are sinners.

When the sinfulness of homosexual behavior is discussed outside of the context of the gospel, people automatically assume that since God is against homosexual behavior, they’re just condemned to hell; when what Scripture actually says is that this is one in a list of several things that all of us suffer from that will lead to hell apart from salvation in Christ.
Exactly. Pretty much every time the Bible mentions any kind of same-sex behavior, it is always in the context of a long list of expressions of sinfulness. The biblical message is not to condemn homosexual people to hell, but to call all of us to repentance.

You must meet people who are a little uneasy with the suggestion that Christians can continue to struggle with same-sex attraction. We all have our sins that we struggle with, but (for whatever reason) this is the one that should go away. (At least, that’s what we want you to tell the youth group.) How do you respond to people who really wish you weren’t going to continue to struggle with same-sex attraction?
We have to take our expectation of what the Christian life will be like from the New Testament. So much of it assumes that we are in a spiritual battle. In Galatians, you have the fruit of the Spirit contrasted with the deeds of the flesh. Paul says that the two are at war with each other, and you do not do what you want. In Romans 8, we are told to put to death the misdeeds of the flesh and by doing so we live by the Spirit. There is this language in the New Testament of the Christian life being a battle with sin. But the presence of the battle is actually the assurance that the Spirit is at work within me. The person who says you shouldn’t be fighting sin if you’re a Christian makes me wonder if they’re actually fighting sin, or if they’ve just run up the white flag and let sin take over. For me, the evidence that the Spirit is at work is not that there’s no battle, but that there’s a mightier battle’I now have new affections warring against the old. I think the New Testament says we’re also to expect a sense of progress in that we don’t just stand still in the Christian life. By God’s grace we become more like Christ, but that doesn’t necessarily entail that we won’t be tempted in the ways we have been. It may well be that there are particular seasons when temptation is more intense, or that they shift around and change as life goes on. But my experience in talking to older saints who are faithful and Christ-like is not that they are fighting sin any less.

How do you answer someone who says, ‘My best friend is not the kind of person Paul’s talking about in these passages, much less the kind of person who was living in Sodom and Gomorrah. My brother and his boyfriend are chaste. They are in a committed same-sex relationship, devoted to each other for the rest of their lives.’ How is that any different from a heterosexual couple?
I want to respond in a couple of ways. The first thing to say is that it is always possible to demonstrate some kind of virtue while we sin. A daft example would be a gang of bank robbers. You might have a gang member who is a loyal gang member. He treats his gang members fairly, he looks out for them, he protects them, keeps them safe, and makes sure they all get a fair share of the earnings. But this doesn’t mean that what he is doing is less sinful. It is always possible to demonstrate some kind of virtue while you sin. The presence of faithfulness and commitment in a same-sex partnership doesn’t mean the partnership is good.

In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul challenges the church in Corinth, because there is an illicit relationship going on that has been unchallenged. A man is sleeping with his father’s wife, most likely his stepmother’an arrangement forbidden in the law in Leviticus. As Paul hears about that illicit relationship and responds to it, he doesn’t say to them, ‘Can you just tell me if they are faithful and committed, because that will then shape how I respond.’ No, it’s illicit. Paul says that it needs to be sorted out; there needs to be discipline. Whether it’s faithful illicit or unfaithful illicit is actually irrelevant at that point. While many of the gay relationships we come across have all kinds of characteristics that are noble and good, that doesn’t justify the particular relationship itself.

We need to remember that the kind of people Paul describes are general people. In Romans 1, he talks about women experiencing lust for women and men experiencing lust for men; he’s not just talking about older men and younger boys, which you sometimes had in the Roman world. He mentions women too. In 1 Corinthians 6 he mentions both the active and the passive partner in a gay relationship, so he’s not just talking about exploitative or situations of homosexual rape. He seems to be talking about consensual relationships between two men and consensual relationships between two women.

Once again, the point is the extent to which the relationship is not the one-man-one-woman marriage intended in the beginning.
Exactly. That is the foundation for all of what the Bible says on sexual ethics. And it’s why we have to look at homosexuality as an application of what the Bible says about marriage.

How would you advise a Christian who was invited to the wedding of a same-sex couple?
I think the first thing I’d want to say to the Christian is, ‘Thank you for being the kind of Christian that a gay couple wants to have at their wedding. This is a sign that you are the type of friend of sinners we are called to be to all kinds of people.’ We want to bear two things in mind as we respond to that kind of invitation. We want to preserve our integrity of witness, and therefore we will be nervous of tacitly approving what is going on. So if, as a Christian, my understanding is that two people of the same sex are going through a marriage ceremony, if that’s a sinful thing, I don’t want to be seen to endorse it or to celebrate it. For myself, I don’t really want to witness it, if I’m honest.

And witnesses aren’t just being spectators. A witness in a marriage is actually endorsing it.
It’s hard to be at a wedding and not have your presence interpreted as support for the couple, so I think for that reason many of us would feel we can’t attend a same-sex marriage ceremony. The second thing we want to preserve is our relationship with the people in question. If we do need to decline the invitation, we need to think of a way we can decline the invitation that most expresses how much this couple means to me, and how much I’m committed to their friendship. Declining a wedding invitation sounds like I’m rejecting them. A way to avoid accidentally communicating such a message might be to explain that we can’t attend but to immediately say, ‘I want the two of you to be part of my life, and I want to be part of your lives. Even though I can’t come, when is the earliest date you can both come around for a meal?’ We need to express that we want to be friends, that we are there for the long haul, and that this declining of the invitation isn’t a rejection of the friendship. My concern is that many Christians will do the declining bit, but they won’t give thought to that second element of how they can express friendship and love.

What do you recommend for churches? I think in a lot of conservative churches, even a lot of Reformed churches, same-sex attraction is just not talked about. The pastor or church counselor might know of someone in the church struggling with homosexuality, but it’s not something we talk about around the table. How can we discuss this, especially when there are people desperately hurting over this’not because they know that it’s wrong, but because they know that it’s wrong and can’t admit it or talk to anybody about it because they feel like they’ll be judged? Not just judged in the sense that people that might actually tell them that what they’re doing is wrong, because that might actually be comforting in a way, but judged in a sense of not talking to them, judged in the sense of ‘I don’t want to leave this person alone with the kids in the nursery.’ What are some biblical ways to both have conviction and show kindness in the way we actually deal with this in the church?
We do need to talk about it. I know you’re assuming that in the question, but there are some who say we shouldn’t talk about it. I’ve had criticism from some conservative Christians that it’s just not proper to talk about this publicly. And it strikes me that if the Bible talks about it, we should talk about it. Let’s not try to be more prudish than Scripture. Anything the Bible talks about, we’re allowed to talk about as a Christian community. The question is how we can make it easy and safe and healthy to talk about. There are a couple of things to bear in mind there. One is that it’s got to start with the pastor’s tone and content from the pulpit, recognizing that there are some who are battling with this issue within this church.

If homosexuality is always spoken of as an ‘out there’ issue, it will make the Christian in the pew think, ‘I’m not supposed to be here. I’m obviously not a Christian if I’m dealing with this.’ Even if it might be a struggle for the pastor to say it, the pastor has to say it’to acknowledge that this may well be an issue for some and to make that something that’s okay, in a sense. We’re allowed as Christians to battle with this kind of temptation, and we need to see homosexual temptation as one type of all the kinds of sexual temptation we experience as different men and women.

What should we say if a same-sex couple shows up at church?
Again, I think people are confused on this point because we’re thinking of homosexuality as a unique category. We should be asking ourselves how we respond if a sinner turns up at church. Generally, we would say, ‘How do you do? Welcome. Lovely to have you here. Come on in, here’s the bulletin, here’s the seat. I’d love to introduce you to people.’ That is exactly what we’d do if a gay couple turns up. It should be a word of welcome. We want people to come in; we want people to experience something of the life of the church and the core of what we believe. Therefore, it would be odd to stop them on the doorstep of the church and say, ‘Now, you seem to be a same-sex couple; let me quickly run through some passage on homosexuality.’ Doing that would imply that we want you to be sanctified before you can be justified. If any kind of sinner turns up to church, our response is, ‘Welcome. We would love for you to become part of our community. We would love for you to enjoy the life that goes on here, and we would love you to come to know the Lord who has met with all of us.’

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