Matthew P.W. Roberts, Pride: Identity and the Worship of Self (Christian Focus, 2023)
Matthew Roberts is a presbyterian pastor in the UK. His book Pride: Identity and the Worship of Self is a response to the secular identity politics of sexual minority groups in the west today. Unwilling to use their own (or any) labels, he deploys ‘Pride’ both as an umbrella term, and as a way of highlighting his central critique of these groups: the sinful pride he thinks they take in their sexual desires and resulting sexual identities.
But his book is not just a critique of the world around us. He is particularly concerned about evangelical Christians (like me) who sometimes describe themselves as ‘same-sex attracted’ or ‘gay’. He would like to end the use of all sexuality labels from heterosexual through to homosexual and the negative impact he maintains they have had on us all.
Although the book has real strengths, I fear it may do considerable pastoral damage.
There is plenty I liked about this book: our generation does need constant reminding that we are creatures defined by our creator God, rather than autonomous beings that get to define ourselves. As he makes this central point, Roberts’ dislike of sexuality labels means that he does not fall into the trap of giving the impression that godliness is heterosexuality. Linked to this, he is clear in his condemnation of the gay conversion therapy movement. He wonderfully gets that our sexual desires are a divine gift and so are of spiritual benefit to us all. Moreover, so much of his application of the biblical category of idolatry is insightful and helpful (though I’d have liked to see it developed and applied as fully as it is in the work of James K.A. Smith). By the end of the book, I was able to feel the good intentions in all that he says, and delighted to find an author who uses Supertramp lyrics.
But although the book has these (and other) real strengths, I also fear it may do considerable pastoral damage to both individuals and churches. Let me show why I say this by highlighting and exploring the four main pieces of pastoral advice I heard Roberts give me, as a Christian who experiences same-sex attraction, in its pages.
1. Your desires are evil
I am very happy with this statement – if anyone can be! I am an Anglican who regularly prays and means these words – in reference to every area of my life:
Almighty and most merciful Father,
we have wandered and strayed from your ways like lost sheep.
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.
We have offended against your holy laws.
We have left undone those things that we ought to have done;
and we have done those things that we ought not to have done;
and there is no health in us.1
I believe in original sin, in the total depravity of humanity, because God’s word, my church, human history, and my own life demonstrate it again and again. As a result, Roberts’ first chapter on ‘The Dynamic of Desire’ has my ticks all over it; it clearly articulates this key Christian doctrine. But I also liked it because Roberts is wonderfully careful in protecting us from a very unhelpful misapplication of this truth:
‘To say our desires are evil is not to say that they are purely evil, for there is no such thing. It is to say that they are at root good desires, implanted in our hearts by the good God as part of his Image in us; yet twisted and misdirected. Every sin can be seen to be this’ (p.65).
Confusingly, this is just the sort of theologically and pastorally precious nuance that is missing in the next chapter. As Roberts continues, he worries that many evangelicals today are abandoning a correct understanding of ‘concupiscence’: that our desires for sinful things, as well as the acts they lead to, are sinful. However, I don’t think all of us are. I think many are just seeking to articulate (perhaps badly) the balanced truth of Roberts’ words quoted above: that behind each of our evil desires is something good that has been distorted and disordered but, if refocussed and reordered, can be redeemed. This is a pastoral necessity in helping the same-sex attracted Christian both to rightly repent of what is wrong about their desires and to start to see the positive places they could lead if rightly directed (most of all, to Jesus himself).2
This discussion inevitably overlaps with that over whether same-sex sexual desires are inherently sinful. Because of the above, my usual answer is a ‘Yes!’ and ‘No!’ – and I think Roberts should be with me. Instead, he seems to forget both theological and pastoral nuance at this point.
My concern is that this will produce needless shame and will stunt worship. Too many Christians see everything about their sexual desires as sinful and a cause for shame; a more biblically healthy approach, I think, would be to recognise both their sinfulness and the pathway that can lead from good but corrupted desires to the only one who will satisfy us completely.
2. Don’t use sexual orientation labels
Roberts is exercised by talk of sexual orientation and sexual identity labels like gay, lesbian, same-sex attracted, homosexual and (I salute his consistency here) heterosexual. He accurately points out that they are not biblical categories and is concerned about the powerful ways they can unhelpfully shape people’s identity and life choices. Like me, he is keen for people to have an identity that is shaped most by who they are in Christ.
The problem is that his ban leaves us with almost no shared language with which to describe and discuss different patterns of sexual desire among human beings. Consequently, Roberts is critical of me for referring to myself as a ‘same-sex attracted Christian’, claiming that I use this language as an identity marker when it is simply a descriptive term. I also sometimes use the word ‘gay’ to aid communication with the world around me. But in neither case am I making my pattern of sexual attraction my core identity. I am simply recognising, as Roberts does, that my sexual desires are a significant part of what it means to be a human created in God’s image.
Forbidding the use of words and concepts that are in common parlance will massively hamper our evangelism and discipleship.
Human beings have, over the centuries, invented and developed inevitably imperfect words and concepts to aid better communication about what we think and feel. The concept of sexual orientation is just one example of this. Roberts is right to point out some of the dangers associated with the concept, but he does us all a disservice by taking away everyday language that allows people to describe what they (or others) are experiencing, communicate effectively with others, and get help. Confusingly, he seems to permit me to talk about ‘experiencing same-sex attraction’ but not to describe myself as ‘same-sex attracted’ – even though this has been my unvarying experience. How much is really to be gained by the creation of such fine-grained distinctions, even shibboleths?
Forbidding the use of words and concepts that are in common parlance will massively hamper our evangelism and discipleship. It could especially disadvantage Christian young people in communicating to them a sense that even talking of these feelings is wrong – an especially isolating experience for any who might be struggling to find a way of expressing any confusion they are feeling. Sexual orientation labels are not perfect, but they are better than a sense that: ‘We don’t talk about those sorts of things here!’ or ‘Use the wrong language and your theology will be suspect!’ Again, shame and/or silence would seem to be the sadly inevitable result of taking Roberts’ advice.3
3. Get married to a woman and have kids
Roberts’ pastoral advice gets most personal when he advises me to get married and have children – referencing me describing the pain of my childlessness (pp.107-108). Now his perceived solution to my grief is clearly possible for some – as my friend Sean Doherty would attest. But just two pages beforehand he has rightly recognised that there are men who are incapable of ever consummating a marriage (p.105) – a possibility he recognises one moment and then seems to forget in what he suggests the next.
As well as recognising the sexual fluidity that many people do experience, it is crucial that we are aware of and pastorally sensitive to those whose sexual desires are exclusively and permanently focused on the same sex. I know of a deeply painful childless marriage which was so because the husband was never able to consummate it. And, of course, I know of many consummated marriages that are deeply painful because they are still childless. Roberts’ advice to get married and have kids to resolve the pain of my childlessness is problematic in multiple ways, and it’s hard to see how it isn’t deeply irresponsible and unloving – to me, any woman I might seek to marry, and many others in very different circumstances too.
4. Go to church on a Sunday
This is obviously good advice – as a fellow pastor I would heartily recommend it. But I worry that Roberts gives the weekly gathering of God’s people more power than Scripture or our experience does: we need more help than it alone can provide. This is the point where I feel he has not drunk deeply enough from the works of James K.A. Smith and come up with a more holistic, 24/7 solution for us. For years I have been haunted by these words from Smith:
'... I think we should first recognize and admit that the marketing industry – which promises an erotically charged transcendence through media that connects to our heart and imagination – is operating with a better, more creational, more incarnational, more holistic anthropology than much of the (evangelical) church. In other words, I think we must admit that the marketing industry is able to capture, form, and direct our desires precisely because it has rightly discerned that we are embodied, desiring creatures whose being-in-the-world is governed by the imagination. Marketers have figured out the way to our heart because they “get it”: they rightly understand that, at root, we are erotic creatures – creatures who are orientated primarily by love and passion and desire. In sum, I think Victoria is in on Augustine’s secret. But meanwhile the church has been duped by modernity and has bought into a kind of Cartesian model of the human person, wrongly presuming that the heady realm of ideas and beliefs is the core of our being. These are certainly part of being human, but I think they come second to embodied desire. And because of this, the church has been trying to counter the consumer formation of the heart by focusing on the head and missing the target: it’s as if the church is pouring water on our head to put out the fire in our heart.'4
This highlights my central criticism of Roberts’ book: that it, like so many Christian responses to our sexualised age, ends up missing the real target: our hearts and their powerful role in determining every part of our lives. He has produced what reads like a reactionary book, focusing too much on policing language, which leaves no room for developing a plausible and beautiful vision around how our sexual desires can be used positively to attract us all to the ultimate satisfaction of a perfect relationship with Christ. Roberts so criticises the terms used to describe our experiences of this God-given part of our humanity that it seems impossible to even begin the much-needed conversation about how we can better ‘capture, form and direct our desires’ in the direction that the marriage of a man and woman points us: the coming together of heaven and earth in the eternal union of Christ and his Church. It is this attractive, biblical vision that has the power to inspire and shape our hearts 24/7.
There is much more that could and should be said about this book – I will leave that to others. These are just the four main pieces of pastoral advice that I heard Roberts speak into my life as (using the language in a purely descriptive way) a same-sex attracted, or gay, Christian. We can and should be doing far better than this if we want, as Roberts clearly does, to properly love and help people like me.
Living Out Team, ‘Should I Call Myself Gay? (Questions No One Wants To Answer #2)’
Gregory Coles, ‘I Used to Experience Same-Sex Attraction’
Living Out Team, ‘Misstep 1 - 'Your identity is your sexuality' (The Plausibility Problem #1)’
Andrew Bunt, ‘Is My Sexuality Who I Am?’
Ed Shaw, Purposeful Sexuality: A Short Christian Introduction (IVP, 2021)
Andrew Bunt, Finding Your Best Identity: A Short Christian Introduction (IVP, 2022)
- An Anglican prayer of confession, taken from Common Worship, available at ‘Forms of Penitence’, Church of England.
- For more on this see Ed Shaw, Purposeful Sexuality: A Short Introduction (IVP, 2021).
- Roberts is also inconsistent in his policing of non-biblical terms and concepts: he talks a lot about ‘identity’, but that is just another example of an imperfect human concept that we use to aid communication, to talk about feelings that are important to all of us, while not being a word or concept the Bible authors would recognise. I am grateful to Matthew Mason for highlighting this in his review. Matthew Mason, ‘Pride, by Matthew Roberts: A Rambling Review’, London Seminary. Accessed 10 July 2023.
- James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), p. 76.