“The most fully human and complete person who ever lived was Jesus Christ. He never married. He was never in a romantic relationship, and never had sex. If we say these things are intrinsic to human fulfillment, we are calling our Savior subhuman.”
That’s a quote from Sam Allberry, who was speaking before the Church of England’s General Synod in London on February 15, 2017. There he talked about separating self-identity from sexual fulfillment. It was a profound moment, captured on video. Sam joins us today on the podcast.
This video clip of your brief address went viral, as they say. Take us into the clip I just played. What’s the setting and what was unfolding?
Live at the Synod
The General Synod is the governing body of the Church of England, which is the main Anglican denomination in England. It acts as the Parliament of the church. It gathers twice a year. I’m one of the elected members on that synod. It has a mixture of bishops, clergy, and laity.
“The most complete person who ever lived was Jesus. He never married, was never in a romantic relationship, and never had sex.”
At that particular session of synod, we were having a debate about whether the Church of England should allow and accept and bless same-sex partnerships, and whether it should redefine marriage to include same-sex couples. That was the context of the particular meeting.
I’ve always known that the debates and the meetings of the synod are live streamed. There are peculiar people out there who like to watch the debates for some reason. But I had literally no idea that the words I was going to say in that room would be extracted and put online and shared with other people. To be honest, I’m really glad I didn’t know that because it was hard enough trying to work out what to say to that room of people without having to think through who else might be listening in as well.
I was very deliberate with every sentence I spoke. I was speaking into a particular context and speaking in the light of other things that had been said during that synod meeting and during that particular debate.
There were a bunch of bishops and clergy and lay representatives there in that particular room. By this stage, I think we had had about ninety minutes of debate. We were given, I think, a two-minute limit on what we could say. So it was an interesting afternoon. I had a lot of people praying for me, so I felt very conscious of that as I stood up to speak.
Excellent. So what was the end result of this particular debate?
Well, it always sounds very mundane and bureaucratic to recount. The House of Bishops in the Church of England had produced a report. The actual debate was whether the synod should recognize that report. The conclusion of the debate wasn’t going to be “Shall we vote to allow same-sex marriage?” though that was the topic. The vote was “Should we recognize — not even endorse, just recognize — the report that the bishops have produced?” We didn’t, in the end, recognize the report that the bishops had produced. That wasn’t going to change too much of the world. The significant thing was, it was the first time this synod had an open debate about that issue.
That makes sense. Well, that brings me to the big thing I want you to address. There, you were limited to two minutes. Here, you can elaborate on this incredible point about sexual expression and human dignity. Unfold it for us.
Your True Self
There are a few things that are assumed in the arguments for allowing same-sex partnerships or redefining marriage in the church. There are a few things that keep being said in support of that that I very strongly disagree with. One is, as you eluded to in your introduction, that sexual expression is central to self-identity.
“Jesus doesn’t put the word ‘self’ in front of ‘identity.’ Jesus puts the word ‘self’ in front of ‘denial.’”
As believers we should have a problem just with the concept of self-identity. Jesus doesn’t put the word self in front of identity. Jesus puts the word self in front of denial. There’s a reason for that. It’s not our job to come up with our own identity. It’s our job to learn who we are in light of who God says we are. The whole concept of self-identity, I think, is entirely wrong-headed from the start.
I love the testimony of the Samaritan woman in John. After she met Jesus, she goes back to her town and she says to them, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (John 4:29). That’s the testimony of all of us. Jesus is the one who shows us who we really are. So that’s one thing.
The other thing is the more significant part of this — the idea that you have to be sexually fulfilled in order to be complete. We kept hearing in these discussions, and you still hear it in discussions today, that if you are not sexually fulfilled, you’re somehow diminishing who you are. You’re less complete. You can only be a shriveled version of who you are meant to be.
That is assuming a very particular anthropology, one that I think is massively unbiblical. It implies that the center of our humanity, the center of our personhood, is our sexual feelings. It insists that sexual fulfillment is at the core of who we are, and therefore, has to be expressed and fulfilled in order for us to be authentically us.
The point I was really trying to make was that Jesus challenges that. Just in the way he lived, his own life he challenges that. As you quoted me, Jesus is the most fully human and complete person who ever lived, and yet he was celibate. The moment we say that you have to be sexually fulfilled or romantically fulfilled or married in order to be a full human being, we are saying Jesus wasn’t a full human being.
Anthropology with a Body Count
That insight came to me because of two things that had happened in previous months. The first was I was having a conversation with an evangelical megachurch pastor who was telling me that he was having problems with a traditional understanding of Christian sexual ethics because, he said, “You can’t make someone live without romantic hope. That’s not a plausible way for someone to live.”
“It’s not our job to come up with our own identity. It’s our job to learn who we are in the light of who God says we are.”
I just remember reflecting on that and thinking that assumes a very particular anthropology, one that doesn’t apply to Jesus.
The second thing that happened was I was preaching through 1 John. We got to the part where John teaches us that if you deny that Jesus Christ came in the flesh, that is the spirit of the antichrist (1 John 4:2–3). I remember thinking, “Who does that these days?” That was a kind of a first- and second-century-type issue. Does anyone actually deny that now?
I suddenly realized, “Yes, this man who says you can’t live without romantic hope is denying the humanity of Jesus.” I suddenly realized that’s part of what is undergirding this debate. It is a very misleading and problematic anthropology that locates the center of our humanity in our sexual fulfillment. It’s actually very, very destructive. Whether you’re feeling sexually fulfilled or not, it’s very destructive.
If you are feeling sexually fulfilled, it’s destructive because it’s saying to you, “This is as good as life gets. This is it. This is life to the full.” Most people who have any sense of awareness will recognize that being sexually fulfilled doesn’t make all of life suddenly feel complete.
But it’s particularly destructive to those who are not feeling sexually fulfilled, because it says to them that the best in life is passing you by. My fear is that it’s only a few short tragic steps from someone being told, “You need to be sexually fulfilled to be complete” to hearing, “A life without sexual fulfillment isn’t worth living.” It’s an anthropology that has a body count.
I just think it’s very destructive. There are a lot of people who are, for one reason or another, unable to marry. There are a lot of people, for one reason or another, who are not able to be sexually fulfilled in a way that they feel they ought to be. The message of our culture to them is, “You’re not really living.” My fear is that people are really going to believe that.
Jesus, in his very life, challenges that secular view.
Only One Bread of Life
Jesus, in his teaching, shows us what the center of our humanity is. It’s the fact that we’ve been created for a relationship with our Creator. He tells us that he is the bread of life. He is what our hungry souls need to be fed by, not romantic fulfillment. That’s not going to feed our souls.
“The moment we say that you have to be sexually fulfilled in order to be a full human being, we are saying Jesus wasn’t a full human being.”
It may be a great gift if enjoyed in the right kind of ways. We’re told about that in the Bible. But actually, if we think sexual or romantic fulfillment is going to make life complete, we’re putting a burden on those two things they cannot possibly bear.
This is why we need to keep hearing the words of Jesus. He’s the bread of life. We are created for a relationship with the God who made us. So that’s where I’ve been trying to go with that.
Interestingly, one of the biggest bits of feedback after that speech was shared online was a lot of single people, not necessarily same-sex attracted, saying they felt encouraged in their singleness by those words. That makes me think that actually we need to encourage our single friends to realize that that’s not a deficient way to live.
My impression is that a lot of Christians in the church who are single are made to feel, for one reason or another, as though it is a deficient way to live. I think it’s a big issue. I think it’s a huge issue.
It’s absolutely is a huge issue, relevant to every one of us. And relevant even for married couples, too.
Well one of the things I say to some of the younger folks around is that if you marry someone thinking they’re going to fulfill you, you’re going to be a bit of a nightmare to be married to.
Once again, you’re putting an expectation, a weight, on the human institution of marriage that it cannot bear. Marriage is not meant to fulfill us. It’s meant to point to the thing that does fulfill us, which is the real marriage with Christ.
Amen! Thank you, Sam. You know, one of the things I most appreciate about you is your frankness — obvious here — but also your ability to speak with convictional kindness. I think this was on full display in this Church of England Synod video.