David Bennett is a budding academic, author and fellow at the prestigious Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics (OCCA). A former anti-Christian gay activist and following a dramatic encounter with the Lord, David has spent years delving into the many Biblical arguments put forward with regards to living as both gay and Christian. Pursuing his doctoral studies at Oxford University, Bennett’s fierce intellect and passionate desire to follow Jesus with his whole heart has clearly resulted in him being entrusted with a mightily influential and important ministry.
At the heart of David’s story is the fact that, though he identifies as gay, he has boldly committed himself to life-long celibacy.
Last week, we reported on some remarks Bennett made to the BBC in a mini-documentary which highlighted the experiences of two individuals who class themselves as both gay and Christian. David was one of those interviewed, and his take was fascinating. As the journalist pressed Bennett for his core reasons behind his celibacy, she did not appear to be prepared for just how well-armed he was going to be in response.
As was made clear in the BBC interview, abstinence is far from a widely-accepted behavior in our modern culture. Indeed, when the reporter suggested that David would surely be “missing out” on one of life’s great experiences should he choose to refrain from sexual activity, the theologian issued a profound response.
“When I was saved in that pub when I was 19, I met a real God, a living presence in my body that provides intimacy for me,” he remarked. “So, I don’t need to have sex.”
David’s powerful words garnered a great deal of attention for its refreshing clarity and willful conviction on a topic which has, over the past few years, remained firmly at the center of the Church’s most prominent theological schisms. Clearly, he possesses both a powerful personal story and the skills required to articulate that spiritual journey with candor and accuracy. With that in mind, we took the opportunity to learn more about David’s background, from his conversion to Christianity, to his spirit-filled desire to refrain from sexual relations as a form of worshipful devotion.
“Brought up in an agnostic home and at the age of 11, I came to realize that I was exclusively attracted to the same gender,” David told Faithwire. “There were voices around me—Christian voices—telling me being gay was wrong and I could not understand how a god would allow me to have those desires—which I cannot change—and yet punish me for it.”
The author explained that as his sexuality became increasingly self-evident, he started to receive fierce criticism from Christians, who continued to assert the impossibility of being both gay and a faithful follower of Jesus. Filled with bitterness and frustration, David decided to embrace atheism and gay relationships. However, he quickly found that his romantic relationships were far from fulfilling.
“When I came out as gay, I thought I could find transcendence in romantic love, but it kept failing me all the way through my teenage years into adulthood,” Bennett explained. “Having been hurt by many in the church, I became a gay activist as I headed to university, lobbying against Christian groups.”
Incredibly, David noted that it was at this precise time when he was “angry and hard-hearted,” and in active conflict with believers, that “God showed up.”
David started questioning a friend about her award-winning work when he was dramatically confronted with the reality of the Lord’s presence. Asking this filmmaker friend about the inspiration behind her work, she simply replied that it “was God.” Quickly, David began quizzing her about why he should be disqualified from a relationship with God as a result of his sexuality. In response, the woman asked him a simple, soul-piercing question.
“David, have you experienced the love of God?”
“I didn’t really have an answer,” Bennett admitted. “But being a good agnostic who had come to the place where I simply didn’t know if God existed or not, I agreed to her offer to pray for me.”
It was at this moment that everything changed, and an in-breaking of the Holy Spirit completely shattered Bennett’s life as he knew it.
“As she prayed, what I felt was a beautiful presence pouring over my head like oil. Jesus had shown up and this was the love I had been searching for all my life,” he explained. “I could not find the intimacy I had been looking for in the world. It was only in God I found that ultimate transcendence I craved.”
But for a man with an analytical mind, this momentous experience did not instantaneously answer all of his burning questions about how his sexuality squared with the Bible. Soon, he found himself embarking on a deep journey of theological exploration which would lead him to make one of the hardest decisions of his life – to abstain from sexual relations.
CELIBACY AS THE WAY FORWARD
As for Bennett’s landmark decision to refrain from gay sex, he openly admitted that, initially, it “seemed a terrible fate to be forced on someone.” But when delving into the life of Christ, he quickly realized that this vow could become something quite the opposite and that being celibate could release a wealth of satisfaction and fulfillment in his life.
“It wasn’t until I looked at the life of Jesus that I could begin to process,” David explained. “He was celibate and he was the single greatest picture of human flourishing. He didn’t have sex, so did I need to?”
“In watching the example of other friends who were celibate and had given their lives to following Jesus and discipling others, I was also witnessing a joy and flourishing in their lives I admired. If they were living this life as heterosexual people, then I could do that as a homosexual person.”
Bennett noted that the scriptures had made it abundantly clear to him that a gay relationship was “not an option.” Through reading the Bible and soaking up wise counsel from those he respected, David realized that the Lord had a “glorious plan for marriage between a man and a woman that reflected the intimacy of Jesus and the bride, his church.”
“I couldn’t worship this God and give my whole life to Jesus, loving him back after he’s loved me, if I wouldn’t give up what I previously thought about gay marriage,” he said. “As God pursued my heart through his word—specifically the message in Isaiah 56 to the eunuch—my celibacy became good news to me.”
WHERE THE CHURCH HAS GOT IT WRONG
“When the church says that homosexuality is a sin, the way gay people often hear that is that they are being shut off from the greatest form of transcendence—relationship with God— and secondarily that they cannot have the secondary transcendence of romantic love with a partner,” Bennett explained. “So we have been removed the two greatest forms of transcendence that give us meaning as humans. Of course, there are feelings of anger and rejection!”
David noted his desire for a “greater form of transcendence” that would fulfill his deepest need for intimacy and mutual love. It was this, he said, that would help him understand the “broader picture of Christianity,” and assist him in putting down solid and lasting theological roots that would see him right in his journey of abstinence.
“If I didn’t know the love of God, if I didn’t have the life of Jesus—the greatest picture of human flourishing—to look toward, of course, celibacy would seem like a terrible option,” he noted. “But scripture was clear—gay marriage was not an option.”
MARRIAGE AS AN IDOL
With his stake in the ground and a life of celibacy and personal sacrifice ahead, David said he has been blessed with a “beautiful calling.” Marriage, he explained, is too often placed on a pedestal among Christians, leading to disastrous consequences. Indeed, his life experience directly challenges “the common notion in the church that it is okay to place marriage as an idol.”
Now, through his work with the Oxford Center For Christian Apologetics, and with the release of his new book, David seeks to “help the church let go of the desire for marriage above a desire for God.”
“Within the church,” he said, “I have found a wonderful relational intimacy.”
“The deep love of the body of Christ has been a gift from God that has sustained my need for human relationship.”
THE CROSS ABOVE IT ALL
“The cross is God’s intimate act of self-giving, his gentle way of critiquing our love of money, sex, self, romance, fame, and, above all, power,” Bennett explained. “These weaker loves, these idols we raise in our own image, could never compare with his infinitely greater love.”
“As Christians, the romance we should most celebrate is the marriage of heaven and earth, between Christ, the Bridegroom, and his bride, the church,” Bennett concluded. “It is the greatest of all love stories.”
The cross is God’s intimate act of self-giving, his gentle way of critiquing our love of money, sex, self, romance, fame, and, above all, power. These weaker loves, these idols we raise in our own image, could never compare with his infinitely greater love. #AWarOfLoves pic.twitter.com/DAIxRUL44i
— David Bennett (@DavidACBennett) December 5, 2018
“But notice this: the faithfulness of intentional celibacy is part of this love story. Both Christ and the bride ought to have only one lover. Practically, all lesser human loves, even the incredible intimacy of marriage, is a half shadow of that great love we were made to experience.”
While pointing out that not every Christian will be called to this life of celibacy, Bennett noted that the “celibacy—discipline, self-control, choosing a greater love at the sacrifice of a lesser” are all “key Christian skills pointing straight to the heart of Christ.”
“No matter your calling, single or married, you must grow in them to grow in Jesus.”
“People often misunderstand me when they think I’m just saying that every gay person has to be celibate. Actually no. I’m saying that this is the default standard for every Christian. All of us have to die to our sexual idolatry at the foot of the cross and be disciples, giving up our sovereignty of self to live for Christ. God carves an individual path of blessings for each person, LGBT or otherwise, from transparent (mixed-orientation) marriages, to ordination, to living in worship communities, to starting new ways of living intimacy in friendship. This is the real reformation we need today.”