(AUTHOR’S NOTE: A review can never do a book justice, so I highly recommend you go and read it for yourself.)
This post was a long time coming. As a blog about being an orthodox Christian in the millennial generation, engaging with the topic of homosexuality was inevitable. And quite frankly, it’s a sensitive one to broach. In our politically charged and divisive climate when people on all sides spend more time yelling over each other rather than listening, it’s quite the tight-rope to traverse. But thankfully, I’m not alone.
Something is happening in the “evangelical” world. New conversations are taking place. In 2017, InterVarsity Press published a book by Gregory Coles entitled “Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity“, in which the author recounts his experience of being a Christian with same-sex attraction that has purposefully chosen to live a celibate lifestyle out of conviction for his faith. That same year, Sam Allberry–pastor, author, speaker for RZIM Ministries–briefly addressed a synod for the Church of England to speak on something similar, stating–“My primary sense of worth and fulfillment as a human being is not contingent on being romantically or sexually fulfilled…and this is liberating.” Then, Christian artist Jackie Hill Perry released her book , “Gay Girl, Good God: The Story of Who I Was, and Who God Has Always Been“, which is her testimony about how she became a Christian after having been in a long-term lesbian relationship. And that’s not all. In the past two years, Becket Cook authored “A Change of Affection,” and Rachel Gilson authored “Born Again This Way: Coming out, coming to faith, and what comes next.”
These people are by no means 100% monolithic. Cole, for example, still technically identifies as “gay” (albeit celibate), while Allberry and Perry prefer the language of “same-sex attraction” (or “SSA” for short). Cole and Allberry have committed to a life of celibacy, while Perry is now happily married to her husband of three years, as is Gilson. But they do have one major thing in common: they all share the conviction that you can be a committed lifelong follower of Jesus Christ while experiencing same-sex attraction, even if that means sacrificing their sexual or romantic desires.
One person to recently join their ranks is David Bennett–a fellow at the Oxford Center of Christian Apologetics or “OCCA”–who recently wrote about his story in “A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus“. He was encouraged to write about his experiences and convictions by his colleague–the late Muslim-turned-Christian apologist Nabeel Qureshi (who also worked for RZIM). Like Cole, Bennett identifies as a “celibate, gay, and Christian” and has decided to live a life of singleness, which he views as an act of obedience to Jesus.
The book has received endorsement and even acclaim from prominent figures such as Amy Orr-Ewing, Sean McDowell, and N.T. Wright (who wrote the forward for his book), and it could hardly be more timely. As a heterosexual man coming from a pretty heteronormative cultural background, I can hardly imagine the pain and difficulty that LGBTQ people have often gone through with throughout their lives, especially those that have tried to navigate between the two worlds of faith and their subjective experience. Hearing from someone like Bennett was insightful and refreshing. His accounts are deep and heartfelt, and I could hardly put the book down (having finished it in just over a day).
Bennett’s message challenges both liberals and conservatives alike to think, enough to make a ‘confessing millennial’ such as myself appreciate what he has to say.
Roughly two-thirds of the book is autobiographical, with the latter third containing mostly reflective and pastoral insights for the church. Having grown up in an agnostic family, Bennett came out late in high school, and wishing to bridge the gap between his newfound identity and the desire to retain some form of spirituality, Bennett dabbled and experimented with Wicca and Buddhism for some time. Eventually, Bennett would throw his hands up and become an avowed atheist by college, fully embracing his LGBTQ identity and becoming a gay activist.
Then Bennett became acquainted with someone who, as it would turn out, was a Christian (much to his horror and chagrin). Their conversation drifted towards faith, and Bennett’s friend asked if she could pray for him, which he reluctantly accepted. In a moment that could only be attributed to the Holy Spirit, Bennett described suddenly feeling God’s personal presence fill his heart and course through his body. In words reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ conversion, Bennett writes, “I was dumbfounded. I was an atheist gay activist, perhaps the least likely of anyone to ever find Jesus.”
Soon afterwards, Bennett found himself in church for the first time in years. Like Lewis, however, growing in his faith was a process. The rest of his account is one of struggling to reconcile his newfound identity in Christ with his identity as a gay man. As another review put it, “conversion didn’t make him a fan of the Bible.” Included in this was his struggle to reconcile his new identity as a Christian with the ways that the church had often mistreated gay people in history, sometimes violently. “I struggled to forgive the church for its lack of love and understanding of the LGBTQI community,” Bennett states.
He recounts one episode in which he enthusiastically invited two of his gay friends to a church event (hoping that they would encounter Jesus just like he had), only to be embarrassed because the pastor reportedly said some off-hand gay jokes in his sermon. His friends walked out and never came back. “Christians have built a prejudiced stereotype and generalization of the gay community,” he writes.
But instead of it turning his back again on Christianity, Bennett’s struggle led him to redirect his eyes away from flawed Christians to Christ himself. And it was the beauty and wonder of this Savior that enabled Bennett to surrender his same-sex attraction to Jesus. In words that every postmodern millennial needs to hear, Bennett realized, “I need to let God be God…After all, if he thinks exactly like me, is he really God, or am I just making him in my own image?”
There is a noticeable distinction in language between his originally ‘experience-centered’ faith and his later ‘Christ-centered’ faith. One watershed moment for him was hearing well-known bible scholar and theologian D.A. Carson (“Don”) speak at a conference about “Living Under God’s Word“. Bennett writes, “Tears poured down my cheeks. I realized I had sat in judgment above Scripture…I could no longer claim to love Jesus without really knowing his words and choosing to live according to them.”
From that moment on, Bennett’s understanding of Scripture–and the God that it talks about–grew. As did his understanding of the Gospel. A turning point came when he sat in church listening to a sermon on Ephesians 2:8-9. It states “ For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith…not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Not everyone was happy about this, however. Bennett writes:
“I experienced more severe hatred from many of my secular friends than I did before from Christians for being gay. My secular friends assumed things about me that were just as prejudiced, if not more so. Many mocked me. But I knew that before I met Christ, I would have done exactly the same. I could point no finger.”
Bennett writes that he wishes that there was more “acceptance of those like me and the churches that agree with my choice to embrace celibacy.”
A Confessing Millennial’s Perspective
Why is this important for this generation?
I’ve written elsewhere about how to be a “confessing” Christian is to stay faithful to biblical Christian teaching. In a culture that worships sexual self-expression to the point of becoming an idol (both straight and gay), the Christian sexual ethic is noticeably and admittedly counter-cultural. Some even view it as oppressive or patriarchal. But that completely misses the point of Christianity. Celibate SSA Christians hit the nail on the head when they point out that the focus is not on rule-keeping for the sake of rule-keeping, but on the person of Jesus Christ himself.
There’s a reason that Bennett’s book is titled “A War of Loves”. He had found that he had two “loves” at work (or rather, “at war”) in his heart: his love for Jesus and his own desires, each one vying for him like a game of tug-of-war. It was the 4th century bishop St. Augustine that described our human brokenness as “disordered loves.” He also wrote, “You have made us for Yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find our rest in you.” The essence of our sin and brokenness–gay or straight– is that we are unable to love the person that we are made for, just as we are unable to love others in the way that we are supposed to.
Modern western culture has a difficult time grasping this because it doesn’t have the categories for this line of thinking. Our cultural narrative in the modern west encourages people to look “deep inside ourselves” in order to find our identity, and then express it (what sociologist Robert Bellah calls “expressive individualism”). But as Tim Keller points out, this does not take into account the inherent complexities (and contradictions) that people find within themselves. For Bennett, that means his genuine love for Christ and his longing to be with a romantic partner.
Francis Spufford, whom Keller quotes, puts it this way:
“[You are] a being whose wants make no sense, don’t harmonize, whose desires deep down are discordantly arranged, so that you truly want to possess and your truly want not to at the very same time. You’re equipped, you realize, more for farce (or even tragedy) than happy endings. . . . You’re human, and that’s where we live, that’s our normal experience.”
So it turns out that our modern cultural narrative proves to be a little too simplistic, and does not provide the same nuance that the Bible does in terms of the complexities of our human existence.
In contrast to our cultural narrative wherein we are encouraged to “look inside” to find ourself, Jesus Christ invites us to pursue him in order to find ourself. He invites us into a life of discipleship–following Him in order to discover who we truly are and who we are meant to be. And unlike our cultural narrative which prizes self-assertion, Jesus Christ invites us to a life of self-sacrifice and self-denial. Why? Because Bennett is right: we are relational beings. But our ultimate fulfillment does not come in human relationships, but in the God that created us. He is who we are made for.
On the other hand, the Church needs more awareness about the struggles that LGBTQ people go through. Having spent two years in the mental health field, I have seen the hurt and heartache that LGBTQ persons experience in their families, relationships, and communities due to misunderstandings or even downright prejudice. Sometimes this is even done by those who identify as Christians in the church.
“‘Why aren’t Christians standing up for these precious human beings?’ I wondered, my heart breaking.”
The church needs to do a better job of actively loving LGBTQ persons without compromising their convictions. Much of this stems from stigma and misunderstandings regarding their same-sex attraction. Bennett writes,
“Very few same-sex attracted or gay people report that when they become Christians, their desires simply disappear. Rather, as in my story, many find that God gives them a special empowering grace to be celibate.”
“Gay” or “Same-Sex Attracted”?
Much debate surrounds the question as to whether celibate SSA Christians should still identify as “gay” (as opposed to simply “same-sex attracted”) despite their celibacy. This is a very important question that must be addressed. But I fear that too quick of a dismissal by many conservative evangelicals might serve to simply trivialize the experience of those with same-sex attraction. The stories of SSA individuals are a very real part of their lives and how they have been shaped, just as the experiences in our lives are part of who we are. It’s simply that these things have been relegated as secondary to our identity in Christ. When we become Christians, we do not become de-historicized abstractions without a story. Rather, God redeems our story. We lives our lives as embodied beings made and restored in the image of God.
Bennett, once again, has an insightful way of putting things in perspective:
“…I knew being gay or SSA could never be my ultimate identity. It could only ever be secondary to the lordship of Jesus.” [emphasis added]
Jesus says, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). Bennett understands this more than most Western people. His testimony is one of costly discipleship, not of cheap grace. Heterosexual Christians like myself can never fully or completely understand the cost or the sacrifice that SSA Christians make by choosing to live a life of obedience.
As Western society becomes more secular, Christian, and postmodern, issues regarding sexuality and gender will increasingly be at the forefront of apologetics conversations. And there is much that we can learn from SSA Christians about obedience and discipleship. As Bennett writes,
“The church needs a new apologetic, a way of thought and life that neither demonizes nor elevates the same-sex desires facing many faithful Christians.”