Q&A with Sam Allberry
Same-sex attraction, Synod remarks, and why the gospel is truly good news for all.
On February 15, 2017, Sam Allberry—RZIM speaker, founding editor of Living Out, and author of Is God Anti-Gay? and 7 Myths About Singleness—addressed the Church of England General Synod in London. His brief remarks were very compelling as he challenged the assembly on their approach to the Christian doctrine on marriage. "My question to the bishops is not, 'Will you preserve this doctrine?,' but ‘Do you really believe in it? Is it good news for the world?,'" he said. "Many of us have found it to be life-giving, as the message and teaching of Jesus always is."
This clip of Sam's remarks went viral, and within hours people around the world were sharing and discussing his bold and powerful witness:
"We witnessed a Daniel-like setting with our colleague, Sam Allberry, before the General Synod in what has to be a historic speech in brevity and anointing. Our Lord was honored and the impact huge," reflected Ravi Zacharias. "Please take a few minutes and watch this clip with Sam before the Synod. It will bless you beyond measure. What courage for a vicar to challenge the bishops. Amazing for our time."
At RZIM we followed up with Sam on why he spoke out at Synod and what surprised him about the response, how the Church should navigate same-sex attraction and sexual identity, and whether the gospel is truly good news for all people.
You recently spoke at Synod and the clip of your remarks went viral. Can you provide some context to your remarks? What motivated you to speak out?
The General Synod is the governing body of the Church of England, split into the house of bishops, house of clergy and house of laity (i.e. those who are not ordained). It totals about 450 people and meets twice a year for a few days at a time. I am an elected member of the house of clergy. The February meeting had a range of items on the agenda, but it was the debate on same-sex relationships that attracted the most attention. Earlier in the year the house of bishops issued a report outlining where they felt the Church of England had got to on the issue of homosexuality. They indicated there was no impetus to change the historic definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman, but hinted that it might be possible to provide pastoral accommodation for other forms of same-sex partnerships, such a possible new liturgical forms of blessing.
Typically when Synod receives a report, we will normally discuss and debate it, and then officially “take note” of it, which means no more than that we acknowledge the report and its content. However, this particular report drew an unusual amount of opposition, especially from those seeking the full inclusion of gay marriage in the Church of England. Such was the strength of this opposition that Synod, in the end, voted not even to take note of the report.
I wanted to speak at the debate for a couple of reasons. The Christian understanding of marriage is hugely important. Jesus himself taught that marriage is between a man and a woman (Matt. 19:3-6) and that any sexual activity outside of this context is sinful (Matt. 15:19). Christians may struggle with aspects of this teaching, but if we are to have integrity, we must surely follow Jesus himself on this. The wider biblical narrative shows us that the union of the man and woman in marriage is actually a picture of the union of heaven and earth in Christ. Our marriages are to point to the ultimate marriage of Christ and his church (Eph. 5:32). Marriage is meant to visualize the gospel. To redefine it will distort the gospel it is meant to portray.
My other reason for wanting to speak is that homosexuality is very much a personal issue, as I mentioned in the speech.
Yes, you described yourself as “same-sex attracted.” What do you mean by that?
The debate was limited to just three minutes per speaker, so I only had time to flag certain things up without the opportunity to properly explain what I meant by them.
When I describe myself as same-sex attracted, what I am saying is that the only sexual desires and feelings I have ever experienced are toward other men, rather than women. I’m not justifying those desires or seeking to validate them. The Bible says that as sinners all our desires are disordered, so it’s actually the case that all of us are fallen and broken in our sexuality. For most, that fallenness will be manifest in an opposite-sex direction; for me (and not a few other believers), it is seen in same-sex attraction.
Some wonder how it is possible to be a Christian and yet experience these things. My answer is that any inappropriate desire is a form of temptation that needs to be fought. Temptation is different to sin. Jesus tells us to pray we’d be delivered from temptation but be forgiven for our sin. Temptation itself is not sin. It is striking that the Bible nowhere promises that temptation will be completely removed in this life; simply that God will enable us to stand faithfully under it.
Were you surprised at the response your remarks received—both the sheer volume and the tone? If so, what surprised you the most?
Well, I had literally no idea someone would extract my speech from the livestream and post it online, still less that it would generate such interest in the wider world. And I’m actually glad not to have known that. It was stressful enough trying to get the speech right for Synod without the added pressure of thinking the rest of the world would be listening in!
It seems to have struck a chord for many Christians. It seems that many haven’t heard a positive message on sexuality before, and so were struck and relieved to hear someone in my situation speaking of hope and life. That has some implications for how we do apologetics in the area of sexuality. Sometimes we’re only heard to say the negatives. But God never says “No” to something without saying a bigger “Yes” to something else. It has been particularly touching to hear about how many singles were encouraged by what I said.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions you think exist in the church and Christian circles when it comes to matters of sexual identity?
The most significant—and often overlooked—thing is that the gospel treats us all the same. All of us are sexually fallen, whether we’re same-sex attracted or opposite-sex attracted. We’re all in the same situation and all need the same forgiveness and restoration that can only be found in Christ. Discipleship involves the same cost for us all: denying self and taking up our cross. I suspect that Christians who balk at what the gospel seems to cost their gay friends haven’t really started counting the cost of discipleship in their own lives.
The most important insight the Bible gives us when it comes to identity is that it is not earned or discovered, but received. We cannot on our own determine or discover our own true identity, whether it is sexual identity or any other kind. We cannot know who we are without first knowing whose we are. The only way to make sense of who we are is to make sense of what we’re for.
Transgender issues are increasingly becoming a topic of discussion and debate in the US, and this is often uncharted territory for the church. How do we navigate this as believers?
It is vital that we have both clarity and compassion. Clarity, because the Bible has key things to say about what our bodies mean and the importance of seeing them as a gift and calling. But the fall means that our bodies may be a gift and calling we would not have chosen. For those experiencing gender dysphoria, the pain is profoundly deep. We of all people should be compassionate, given what we know about how the fall has caused us such alienation. But we also know that the real issue underlying all of this is our alienation from God, and therefore the only true hope for any of us experiencing bodily brokenness is the broken body of Christ.
You talked at Synod—as you often do—about the idea that the gospel is truly “good news” for everyone, including those who are same-sex attracted. Can you expound on that?
God knows us better than we know ourselves. He loves us more than we love ourselves; He is more committed to our happiness than even we are. His gospel is life-giving and never life-taking. Jesus himself said that “whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35). It is as we yield ourselves to Jesus that we discover true and abundant life.
What are some pieces you’ve written that might be helpful for those who are interested in further exploring these issues from a Christian worldview?
I encourage everyone to look at LivingOut, a group of Christians who experience same-sex attraction bringing out into the open the questions and dilemmas that they can often face. I was part of starting this effort to help same-sex attracted Christian brothers and sisters stay faithful to Biblical teaching on sexual ethics and flourish at the same time; to help the Church understand how they can better help those who experience same-sex attraction to flourish; and to help the wider world hear and understand that there is more than just one viable script for those who are same-sex attracted.
In addition, here are a few pieces I've written recently that address various aspects of sexual identity:
- How Can the Gospel Be Good News to Gays?
- How Can the Church Help Those Battling Same-Sex Attraction?
- You Are Not Your Sexuality
- How Celibacy Can Fulfill Your Sexuality
- What Christianity Alone Offers Transgender Persons
We must respond to the secular narrative with a Christian one, and that is what I'm attempting to do. The world needs to hear same-sex attracted Christians like me share our experiences of God’s goodness on this issue. The culture needs to know there is a different calculus for measuring human flourishing. There is another, better script available. God’s Word on this issue is not only true; it really is good. And the future is glorious.
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