Review – Pride: Identity and the Worship of Self

20 April 2023

Ben John, Wilberforce Academy Development Officer, reviews a new book tackling issues of sexual identity

“There is a danger in writing or speaking about identity in 2022, that everyone is getting exhausted with it.”

So begins Matthew Roberts in his new book Pride: Identity and the Worship of Self (Christian Focus, 2023, 182pp). He’s right – ‘identity’ has become a buzzword in both culture and church – but in his new book, Roberts gives a refreshing critique of the prevailing worldview in the West, what he calls the “idolatry of the Free Self.”

He splits the book into two parts: Part 1: Defined by Worship, and Part 2: Restored to be True Worshippers.

Made to worship God

In Part 1, he helpfully unpacks what man is made for: to worship God.

“Who we are, and who we understand ourselves to be, are grounded more than anything else in whom we are made to worship, and whom (or what) we do in fact worship.” (p15)

We are made to worship God, which is inseparable from love. That is what our identity is ultimately rooted in, but it leads to conflict: “for all fallen human beings, there is a basic identity-conflict in play. We are one thing; we believe ourselves to be something else. We have a true identity, though we deny it and seek to suppress it; and we have a false identity, centred around our idols, which we cling to fiercely even though it diminishes our humanity.” (pp30-1)

In chapter 2, he exposes the prevailing idolatry of the age the idol of the Free Self (pp 39-44). He helpfully highlights how the idol of the Free Self is “pride expressed in a particularly pure form” (p42). “Pride marches certainly seem to fulfil [a] religious function, and such things as Pride month and LGBT history month appear to be elements of a sort of liturgical calendar.” (p43)

The sinfulness of sinful desires

Chapters 3 and 4 unpack the slavery and the sinfulness of sexual desire, respectively.

Chapter 4 is particularly helpful in articulating the historic protestant understanding of the sinfulness of sinful desires, a position that seems to have been lost or forgotten in evangelicalism today. Roberts makes a compelling case that desires for sin are in themselves sinful. This has significant pastoral implications, as we point people to flee from sinful desires. It also changes the entire framework for responding this topic, for example the language of ‘sexual orientation.’

Gay Celibate Christians?

Part 2 of the book shows how we can respond to the present challenge. He writes on the significance of sex (chapter 5), the gospel of who we are (chapter 6), the redemption of identity (chapter 7) and closes with an analysis of the centrality of Christian worship to true humanity (chapter 8).

One particular area of challenge, particularly for evangelicals, is his critique of gay or same-sex attracted labels: “it is integral for someone who identifies himself by one of the LGBT+ identities, upon becoming a Christian, to give that identity up.”(p131)

Roberts describes how the approach that “identities are good, actions are bad” as seen by organisations like Revoice and Living Out is part of the problem because it accepts “the validity of the Pride identities. In doing so, it tacitly buys into the idolatry that gives homosexual and transgender desires a power to define us.”(p146)

Whilst evangelicals do try to emphasise “my fundamental identity as a Christian”[1], this isn’t always consistent with many describing themselves as “being gay or same-sex attracted.” As Roberts notes “the problem with this is that speaking in this way does treat sexual lusts as a definitive aspect of who a person is.”(p148)

This is tied in with our more widely accepted adoption of the language of ‘orientation’. A concept which “assumes a moral neutrality of something which is not remotely neutral”(p80).

Roberts exposes the absurdity of where we have come:

“…a moral equivalence between a loving husband wanting to share the delights of the marriage bed with his wife, a godly single man hoping to find a wife, another man looking to satisfy his lust with an unknown Tinder date, and another desiring to commit sodomy is one that is so extraordinary from a biblical worldview, and that of the Christian church very nearly up to the present day, that it has required the invention of a whole new vocabulary to first articulate and then to normalise it.”(p80-81)

Thus language that describes ‘sexual orientation’ or ‘gender identity’ is really an idolatry, it is “a problem so fundamental that they must be rejected by Christians not simply as justifications of certain sorts of behaviour but as concepts in themselves…”(p103-104)

This has quite significant pastoral implications, which Roberts exposes:

“The often-repeated claim that ‘same-sex attracted’ Christians must be celibate is… biblically speaking, nonsense. Like all Christians, they must avoid sin, including all sexual sins. But ‘celibate’ is certainly not the right word for that; historically, it refers principally to abstaining from marriage, not abstaining from sodomy or any other extra-martial sexual activity which is, after all, simply sin.” (p104-105)

This certainly rings alarm bells about how this thinking has become the dominant position in British evangelicalism and the effect it is having on our discipleship, particularly of young people.

Rooted in maleness and femaleness

A helpful insight was viewing all of this within the context that we are made male and female. Unlike the false category of sexual orientation, “male or female is what we are” (p91).

Roberts notes, when considering the Genesis account in 1:26-28, “it is only male and female together who can have this dominion, and male and female together who can be fruitful and multiply” (p93).  It would have been helpful for him to also consider whether this changes in the New Covenant, as it is common in evangelicalism today to hold quite a sharp discontinuity between the Old and New Testament, including a change in the place of the natural family.

But, as noted above regarding the deception of the “gay celibate Christian”, it has helpful implications on how we disciple those who struggle in this way: “the man who thinks of himself as ‘gay’ – a false identity – has a true identity as a male image of God. The form which God’s image takes in him is that of being called to emulate God’s father-like qualities. That means, to lead, protect and provide in his home and in society.” (p104)

It would have been good to see Roberts engage with what actually is singleness. What category is unwanted persistent singleness? Is that different to a gift of celibacy? There is a common emphasis today on the gift of singleness and it would have been interesting to have Roberts’ perspective on that.

The Lordship of Christ

It is challenging and refreshing to see Roberts’ commitment to proclaiming the Lordship of Christ into a culture that worships the Free Self. As Roberts says “[t]he proclamation of the gospel in the context of paganism always means calling people to turn from their idols to the living God (1 Thess. 1:9) … It will not do to call for the cessation of immoral sexual practices while not calling people to abandon their worship of the Self and its Freedom, and to turn in repentance to the living and true God.” (p47)

This becomes a particular challenge for us Christians who are engaging in the public square as we should seek first and foremost the glory and honour of God. To call people to Christ is not less than calling people away from their sin, but it is certainly a lot more than that. We turn away from sin and turn to Christ. This brief aside in the book was perhaps the one that challenged me most personally:

“[T]he idolatry of the Free Self… is so much in the air that we breathe that most Christians simply have not realised how much we too have succumbed to treating the Free Self as a deity. Perhaps not sexual Freedom so much. But in defending their actions and morals in the public square, many Christians are far more likely to appeal to a fundamental right to religious freedom or freedom of speech that they are to appeal to the universal Lordship of Christ or the sole deity of the Holy Trinity. Our Freedom to choose which god we believe in frequently sounds on our lips more important than the one true God who commands us to believe in him. This speaks of at least a danger that the Freedom of the Self has usurped the Triune God in our own hearts too. It may be that, if we are to respond to the challenges that Pride presents us with, we must start by repenting of this ourselves.” (pp47-8)

Conversion therapy?

Given his careful engagement with those he disagrees with, it is a shame that Roberts does not more directly engage with what he calls the “curing identity by therapy” (p142-145) approach. The only engagement seems to be second hand from Jayne Ozanne (a gay campaigner) and Greg Johnson (a ‘gay celibate’ leader in the Revoice movement and advocate of the “gay celibate” approach addressed above).

When Roberts notes that “the idea that by prayer or exorcism or therapy or anything else sinful desires can simply be taken away flies in the face of the New Testament’s account of how the Spirit overcomes our sin” (p144) I am not too sure exactly who he is addressing. Those who I know who are engaging in this area would, I assume, wholeheartedly agree with most of the rest of the book. In fact, someone who is struggling and is seeing a counsellor explicitly said to me recently that his counselling and therapy is mainly about helping him grow in his masculinity, understand more what it means to be a man, and nothing about trying to “become straight”. Indeed, for many I know in counselling in this area the main breakthrough for them has been the counsellor helping them to no longer identify as gay or same sex attracted anymore (and that doesn’t mean simply declaring oneself straight), something which Roberts advocates as noted above.

No doubt, there might be flaws in placing too big an emphasis on counselling and therapy and separating it from the gospel and repentance. As Christians, we should first and foremost be calling people to Christ. But many Christian counsellors and therapists would see their work as Christian discipleship, with pointing people to Christ as an essential part of their work.

Roberts helpfully reminds us that at the root of our desires is sin and idolatry[2], but this does not mean that the shape those fallen desires take cannot be affected by nurture. The young man who was sexually abused as a child[3] and grows up into engaging in a homosexual lifestyle certainly needs to repent and turn to Christ, but support of some kind to address the trauma of the past could certainly be helpful[4].

It would have been helpful to hear from Roberts on what the pastoral care in a local church should look like too. When Roberts says that those tempted in this way can still marry he notes that “I am not saying that men regularly tempted in homosexual ways will not need particular pastoral support from their churches,”(p106f13) – what kind of particular pastoral support does he have in mind?

Whilst I think there is much to say and challenge here, I would have liked to see Roberts more directly engage with what is being said by those advocating a therapy approach today.

A Gospel Hope

In conclusion this is an excellent book. Roberts speaks with particular insight into the challenges in our culture today and the way the Church has quite easily adopted assumptions and beliefs from the idolatrous culture around us and gives us a way forward to responding.

Whilst I would have like to see more engagement with counsellors and therapists, Roberts does not shy away from offering hope to those struggling in this area that:

“fired with a Spirit-given love for God, Christians live out a life which pleases God in a way they never could have done before. Far from perfectly, for their sinful desires will linger in this life. But the transformation is real. Christ died to purify for Himself a people cleansed from their sins and zealous for good works. It cannot be overstated that this is the centre and the glory of the Christian gospel. It is a gospel of redemption: of God setting sinners free from the slavery of sin.” (p84)

You can buy a copy of Pride: Identity and the Worship of Self from Christian Focus, Amazon and other retailers

[1] Ed Shaw, The Plausibility Problem, 36

[2] Ed Welch was helpful for me in thinking some of this through, see particular his chapter on Homosexuality in “Blame it on the Brain?” and also his CCEF Booklet “Homosexuality.”

[3] I am not suggesting for one moment saying this is always the case, but it is a common theme in people’s testimonies.

[4] ‘Reintegrative Therapy’, arguably the most prominent treatment accused of ‘conversion therapy’ simply consists of mainstream trauma approaches.

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