In an in-depth interview, British pastor and author Sam Allberry analyses the debates around sexual identity, freedom of speech, marriage, and abuse in Christian contexts. Watch the video.
Sexual identity, the value of marriage, abuses of power and freedom of speech, have all been hot issues within the evangelical community in 2021.
In autumn, Protestante Digital and Evangelical Focus talked about these with Sam Allberry, when the British pastor, apologist, and author visited Madrid, Spain.
Allberry has written several books and articles on sexuality from a biblical perspective.
He used to work with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), and has been one of the most active voices in denouncing abuse in Christian contexts as the scandals of the organisation's founder were known.
When we asked Sam these questions, the Welsh Anglican Church had just announced it would bless same-sex unions.
Watch the video of the interview below.
Question. Recent surveys confirm that an increasing number of people under the age of 23 identify as LGBTQI. Why do you think this is happening?
Answer. I am sure there is a number of reasons for that. We live in a culture, in a society, that is so sexually aware and saturated. There are more options of sexual identity than in the past.
When I was a teenager in the early 1990s, there were people who were gay, but we did not think about it in terms of sexual identity and there was not a list of potential sexual identities that you could choose from.
[destacate]“When I was a teenager in the early 1990s, there were people who were gay, but there was not a list of potential sexual identities that you could choose from”
Some of it is due to the sheer availability of those categories. The widespread availability and use of pornography has increased sexual confusion. I am sure there are more people defining themselves in some of these broader ways, simply because pornography can often confuse us in terms of our sexual feelings.
I think part of it, maybe a small part, it is that there is this acceptance cultural value if you identify with some kind of what they would call a sexual minority.
I can imagine, if you are a 13 or 14-year-old insecure teenager (and we were all insecure at 13 and 14) it is a way of becoming noticed. If you feel like you are being overlooked, you do not see other people interested in you, coming out gives you a way of being seen. I wonder if a part of it is peer pressure as well.
It is a mixture of fashion, pornography and other things I am sure I am not aware of.
Our culture is putting sexual fulfillment as being one of the key things that make your life complete, so that there is much more eagerness for sexual exploration and experimentation that it would have been in the past.
[photo_footer]Sam Allberry, speaking to Evangelical Focus in Madrid (Spain). / Photo: Evangelical Focus, Protestante Digital.
Q. How can churches have a strong biblical position on sexuality and also help people in their communities who want to follow Jesus and struggle with their sexual identity?
A. As Christians, if we lose the Bible, we lose our faith, we lose the gospel. There is a lot of pressure from different parts of the Christian world to change what we believe, so that we can be more in agreement with society, but we have to be true to what God has said.
We do need to maintain our biblical convictions, but we need to do so in a way that we still show grace, kindness, compassion and the fruit of the Spirit to people as well.
[destacate]“There is a lot of pressure from different parts of the Christian world to change what we believe on sexuality”
There will be those in our church who are wrestling with different forms of sexual temptation, sexual attraction, and concepts like sexual identity. We want the church to be the place where people feel able to be honest about what they are really struggling with.
One of the ways that we will help them is, not only to hold on to biblical conviction that same-sex relationships are not permitted by God. We are all sexual sinners.
That would help us not to be judgemental and not be demeaning or condescending to Christians who struggle with a particular forms of temptation. We want the church to be a place where people can confess and repent of any kind of sexual sin and brokenness, and find the rest and grace of Jesus Christ.
Q. Your work allows you to travel to many countries and see different realities. How would you say churches are dealing with society’s pressures in the area of gender ideology?
A. This is a huge challenge now, especially in the Western world. We are in the middle of a gender revolution.
The way churches have responded is very varied. Some churches have tried to ignore the issue, it seems too much to cope with. Other churches have engaged with it, but in a very scornful kind of way.
I think a healthy approach, and more and more churches are doing this now, is to try to understand what people are dealing with. To reach out with the love of Jesus Christ to transgender friends.
Again, we want to be clear about what the Bible says about God making us male and female, but to hold up with compassion people who struggle.
Jesus in Matthew 19 says that from the beginning God has created them male and female, and He then says a few verses later that some were born eunuchs. Jesus is expecting that sometimes there will be physical complexity.
The fact that some people are born eunuchs does not mean that there is not such a thing as male and female. And the fact that God makes us male and female does not mean that there is not confusion and pain around those things. We can affirm both of those things.
Q. The Anglican Church in Wales just approved same-sex unions and may soon marry homosexual couples. How do you see this doctrinal debate inside Anglicanism?
A. This is a huge issue and it matters profoundly, because in the Bible the marriage between a man and a woman is meant to be a picture of the union between heaven and earth through Jesus Christ.
[destacate]“The gospel is not heterosexual marriage, but heterosexual marriage is one of the main categories through which the Bible illustrates the gospel”
Marriage is meant to be a picture of the gospel, of Jesus and His bride. If we redefine marriage, will end up redefining the gospel it points to. I have yet to see a church or denomination that has redefined marriage that has not also redefined the gospel.
I am very sad to hear about the Church of Wales, I think the Church of Wales is now saying it is no longer a Christian denomination. I see that, unless they repent of this decision, as a denomination (I am not saying every pastor within the denomination will be in this kind of situation) they are abandoning the gospel.
The gospel is not heterosexual marriage, but heterosexual marriage is one of the main categories through which the Bible illustrates the gospel.
It is really serious, it is not just an issue that Christians can agree on or differ and it does not affect you fellowship or your witness. This is an issue that really does affect our understanding of the gospel.
Q. In Europe, we have recently seen the cases of pressure on churches and even on Christian politicians. Do you think there are LGBT lobbies whose agenda includes ending freedom of speech for Christians? Is freedom of speech in general at risk?
A. We use language of the gay community as if it is a sort of an organic whole and it is not. There are so many gay people who have so many different political convictions, different temperaments, different ideologies.
There are undoubtedly some who do want to overturn what they have understood to be a Christian dominance over the history, but I would hesitate that they would speak for all gay people.
It is interesting that in some countries that has gone further than in others. I think it is inevitable in every Western country, because there are many more stakeholders when it comes to freedom of speech than just evangelical Christians.
We need to be aware of some of these agendas, of these discussions. We need to try to promote policies that we think will protect all groups and freedom of speech for everybody.
In the UK, when there has been a discussion about hate speech legislation, there has been an unlikely alliance between some stand-up comedians and some evangelical Christians, because in both cases they have seen an existential threat to their freedom of speech.
It is nice to be able to link up with other groups as we promote this principle not just for ourselves, but for other groups too. In fact, as a Christian, I want the comedian to have the right to mock me publicly.
I think it is good for us, when we are trying to speak into these issues, not just trying to speak in defense of ourselves, but also to speak in defense of others, even people who may not agree with us or even like us. This is for the health of everyone, not just about protecting ourselves.
But either way, I am not fearful, because we know so clearly from the New Testament that even when Christian evangelists are in prison, the gospel is never changed.
Even if the Western come to the worst, and in more countries Christian are at risk of an arrest for saying we believe to be true, we do not need to fear for the course of the gospel in that situation. The gospel will advance through our imprisonment, if that happens to be what takes place.
[photo_footer]Sam Allberry, speaking to Evangelical Focus in Madrid (Spain). / Photo: Evangelical Focus, Protestante Digital.
Q. You were very active denouncing what happened with Ravi Zacharias. How can we prevent cases of abuse of power like this and others that have been known in recent years from happening in the evangelical world?
A. There have been so many deeply sad abuse scandals over recent years, in Europe and in the United States as well.
I think one of the lessons we need to learn is that we must not elevate gifting above character. Sometimes, when we get an unusually gifted Christian pastor or speaker, it is easy to kind of let them off the hook for things that will be character issues for anybody else. They are being so fruitful, therefore we do not need to be as concerned about issues of character.
Someone with gifting and fruitfulness is never a reason to let them get way for character defects or not providing suitable accountability, supervision and those kind of things.
[destacate]“We never have to sacrifice character in the name of fruitfulness and we need to encourage a culture of transparency and accountability”
We never have to sacrifice character in the name of fruitfulness and we need to encourage a culture of transparency and accountability. Christian leaders need protection, they need accountability.
We are all dust of the earth, we are all fragile, we are all vulnerable to sin and we all need the various means of grace that the New Testament gives us to stay faithful and healthy.
In many of these scandals, because someone is being so singularly gifted, it does not matter if they have accountability or if they are within a church, or if their finances are opaque. We must never use that logic.
Another big area is paying closer attention to the voices of those making accusations. It may seem in some cases unbelievable, but credible accusations do need to be looked into carefully and appropriately.
We cannot just assume that because someone is our very gifted spiritual hero, we have to put them in a pedestal and just assume that sins are beyond them. That is not the case, we all need to have the right amount of scrutiny, not constant suspicion on everyone, but a realistic sense of accountability.
Q. What would you recommend to evangelists and Christian apologists who were part of the RZIM network around the world and now want to continue serving God with their call to evangelism? Is this a chance to build a more contextualised and local apologetic work?
A. All these scandals make the gospel all more urgent and precious, because we see just how destructive sin is and how desperate needed the message of repentance and faith is. The scandals only make me come to appreciate the gospel even more.
I hope in one sense it encourages us to do even more evangelism and more apologetics. But particularly for those who are feeling cold into that kind of area, we need to do everything we can to be healthy Christians. If we want to be evangelists or apologists, we still need to be healthy Christians who are part of healthy churches.
Lets not have any other ambition than to be a healthy Christian, that matters most than our ministry does, that has to come first.
[destacate]“If we want to be evangelists or apologists, we still need to be healthy Christians who are part of healthy churches”
If there is not a way of doing that ministry and be a healthy Christian, we should not be doing that ministry. If we are doing a ministry, we need to do so in a way that means we are being healthy, we are in a community.
One of the lessons, and going back to the second part of the question, is that for those who are, have been or might be in the business of itinerant speaker, and I come myself as one of those, this gives us that all the more we need to be embedded in churches.
I do not think it means we should not travel and speak, but it means we need to do so not just under the oversight of a particular ministry we might be working for, but also under the oversight and discipline of a local church that will know what we are doing and where we are going, with transparency and the right kind of accountability.
I am going to be doing the work under the auspices of a local church and they will have a say in what I say yes to, what I say no to, what my ministry priorities are. They will know where I am going, what I am doing, where I am, none of those things will be a mistery for them.
There is a place for a wider evangelist and apologetic ministry, but, if that is the case, it is need to be done in a way that is as spiritually healthy as possible.
Itinerant life can lead you in an unhealthy direction, it can take you out of community, out of that sort of local embeddedness. We need to find ways of being locally grounded Christians even if we are speaking regionally or further afield.
Watch the video interview with Sam Allberry: