David Bennett has a remarkable story of going from a gay activist who despised Christians to a Jesus follower who has a heart for both the gay community and the church. Sean and Scott interview David about his new book A War of Loves, in which he tells his story and also offers some biblical insights and practical tips for how Christians can lovingly engage LGBTQ people today.
More About Our Guest
David Bennett is from Sydney, Australia, and is reading for a DPhil (PhD) in theology at the University of Oxford. He is a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics and holds an Oxford postgraduate degree in theology, as well as a master’s degree in analytic theology from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith & Culture. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: I'm your co-host, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics, also at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: We're here today with a guest that both Scott and I have been looking forward to for a long time joining us. David Bennett has written a wonderful new book called A War of Loves. He also speaks, he writes regularly, and we want to talk about this book, A War of Loves today. You're also connected with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.
Sean McDowell: First off, David, thanks for taking the time to join us all the way from Greece.
David Bennett: Oh, it's such a pleasure to be with you both. It's ... Yes, I'm calling from Athens, Greece. I just came back from a lovely Greek meal, so ready for your questions.
Scott Rae: Well, we appreciate you interrupting your holiday for us.
David Bennett: Oh, no. It's a welcome interruption, definitely.
Sean McDowell: Well, I loved your book. I'm honored that you gave me the chance to endorse it. But let me ask you about the title. I thought it was so intriguing. Why call your book A War of Loves?
David Bennett: You know, I think when I was writing the book I wanted a title that could reflect what it's like to be a Christian in the world, I think, in a general sense, but also primarily what it's like to be a same-sex-attracted or gay Christian. Specially one like myself who's come from a non-believing Atheistic background and then becoming a Christian.
David Bennett: But there's this kind of inner conflict between two definitions of what love is. The secular definition and the Christian definition that we see in the person of Jesus. But also, even more fundamentally on an individual level between the desires we have that do not align with the Divine Will are the desires that ...
David Bennett: The desire for God to follow Jesus to live in the Kingdom and I wanted ... yeah, a title that could just show that tensile reality that I think helps us come out of the question of desire, things like desire. We have deeper resources than maybe currently we have in that conversation.
Scott Rae: David, I think our ... with most of our listener being in the US, they will detect an accent that's a little different than what we normally have on our podcast, so tell our listeners a bit about where you grew up-
David Bennett: Yeah.
Scott Rae: And what kind of family you came from.
David Bennett: Definitely. Well, I grew up in an Atheist-Agnostic home in Sidney, Australia so lots of sunshine, but I wasn't the typical, stereotypical Sidney citizen who liked to go to the beach and surf. I was a kind of intellectually engaged young teenager with all the big questions, and I grew up in a kind of ... a public school context, and then eventually went to a Christian Anglican school where I was confronted with the question of God for the first time.
David Bennett: And I think, for me, God spelled condemnation for gay people, God spelled misogyny or anti-feminism, it spelled a kind of law that was going to be hung over my head as a gay person, that I could never fulfill just simply because I had these desires that weren't something I chose.
David Bennett: And so, the logic of Christianity never made any sense to me at school. It was always something that I bucked against, because it didn't make sense to me. How could a God give me these desires that are so fundamental to my humanity and then condemn me for them?
David Bennett: I didn't have the nuance theologically or ... in other ways. Or even people around me who could explain it to me. It was just that homosexuality was bad, gay people were the enemy and we need to just get rid of them and keep in a Christian kind of suburban utopia, and that I was a threat to that reality.
David Bennett: And that was deeply hurtful and that made me very angry, and at the age of 14, I came out as gay and then ... You know, Henri Nouwen talks about how the biggest battle we have to really receive God, that it's actually self-rejection, because we say “I'm not good enough to be loved by God.”
David Bennett: And I think that's how a lot of non-believers feel. They feel they're just not good enough, and no one's ever told them about Grace, or that there were people who did show that grace to me. I still couldn't accept it. I still just was too angry and too ... that self-rejection was driving me too much.
David Bennett: So I favored that for radical self-disclosure. “Hi, I'm David. I'm gay. Do you have a problem with it? I don't have a problem with you.” And that came out of a real experience of homophobia. Many experiences, actually, but on particular one marked me when I was in a park in Sidney.
David Bennett: A man pulled up on a motorbike when my boyfriend at the time gave me a cross, believe it or not, as a present. He gave me a kiss and this man saw us kissing as I received this gift, and threw a large stone against my back. And you see in the cover of the book, A War of Loves, there's this kind of ... There's this cross dangling down.
David Bennett: Actually, in my hand was this cross, which I thought was the symbol of my oppression, but it was actually the symbol of my acceptance into the Kingdom of God as a gay person. But I hadn't yet discovered that. So that kind of reflects my wrestle as a young person in Sidney, Australia, in a Christian school but from an Atheist background.
David Bennett: But I did grow through many spiritual fads, and I did have a spiritual hunger and I played around with Wicca, with New Age religions, with Buddhism at one point. And I actually ended up going to a psychic when I was 15 and this psychic read my Tarot cards.
David Bennett: She was reading my Tarot cards, she said, “David, you're a child of the light, and you're destined to be of Jesus, the greatest mediator in the heavenly realms.” So there you go.
Sean McDowell: Wow.
David Bennett: I was [inaudible 00:06:48] practically haunted by God, the Hound of Heaven. From quite a young age, God was pursuing me, but I still couldn't see it. I still felt myself condemned by the Church and by Christianity.
Sean McDowell: That's how I felt reading your book, that it's like Jesus just wouldn't let you go and you resisted it at every turn for years, even when becoming a Christian, there were continued battles, which we all have. But describe that moment where you just felt God's presence and you really surrendered to the Lord and overcame some of these barriers that you've been talking about.
David Bennett: You know, Sean, exactly, I think we do, and I think ... The Bible talks about there's the Lord of sin and death and the Lord of grace, and I was under the Lord's sin and death, so I couldn't perceive God's grace for me. And so it wasn't until the age of 19 that I was in a pub in central Sidney, and my uncle, who I'd had a debate with ...
David Bennett: Actually, quite an apologetic-based debate about the existence of God. After that, at the Christmas lunch table in 2008 he was in the car and he had a word from God that I would be saved in three months time, and he was right. In three months time I encountered God, and I had only three months of Atheism left.
Sean McDowell: Wow.
David Bennett: I was in this pub in central Sidney, and this young Creative who had a film in one of the larger Short Film competitions in the world, she was there in a pub in the gay quarter of Sidney and she offered me prayer. She asked me the question, “Have you experienced the love of God?”
David Bennett: And being a postmodern, I instantly was interested in that question of experience. And so she offered me prayer, and I said, “Well, I'm a good Agnostic. I have to be open to the existence of God, but I don't think anything's going to happen.”
David Bennett: And in this moment she just kind of launched into the Christian prayer of the century, and used all Christian words that kind of freaked me out [inaudible 00:08:55] she prayed for me. But as she was praying for me, I just felt this tingling sensation on the top of my head, and it was like oil being poured over me.
David Bennett: And I had this encounter with Jesus and finally the question, “Will you accept my son, Jesus as your Lord and savior?” came to me like a voice in my mind, and I said, “Yes,” and then the love of God was poured down on me. This was exactly three months after the debate with my uncle so when I came home ...
David Bennett: My mom had become a Christian three months before this and she was there waiting, and I had to eat my words because I had said to her, “You have to choose between the delusion in your head and your real son standing right in front of you.”
David Bennett: And I told her that, that night I had become a Christian and I had said, “Yes, I will accept your son Jesus as my Lord and savior.” And there was a journey from that point of deep questioning out of that experience, powerful experience of God's love about my sexuality, and that's part of ...
David Bennett: Really, that's where really the “war of loves” starts. Is when I become a Christian, but what do I do with my gay identity? What do I do with this? And the rest of my humanity, as well. How does this all figure in the story and how I approach God, how I worship Him?
David Bennett: And so, yeah. The book is that journey towards finding God's truth, and submitting my life to Jesus in the Power of the Spirit. But it was a journey. Took me three years.
David Bennett: I wanted gay marriage to be the way. I wanted it to be true and right, and I was an activist in a way in the Church for the first three years of being a Christian, and that all changed at a certain point when I was living in Strasbourg, France.
David Bennett: And, God, in a moment of prayer said, “I need you to give me your homosexuality,” and so I gave God my homosexuality and that was through the example, actually, of a celibate missionary woman who lived in Strasbourg, France.
David Bennett: Name's Mary, and she exemplified a life of discipleship that was so deep and profound and costly, and I'd never seen that before. And I said, “Well, if she can live this way, so can I. I can give my sexuality to God.” And that really is another aspect of this.
David Bennett: There's an aspect of self-denial that every disciple needs to go through and I think ... I have a heart to regain that for the gay community, specially, but also the whole Christian Church, that we are all called to be disciples, to take up our cross, to deny ourselves, and in that, we actually receive our true identity in Christ.
David Bennett: So there you go, it was a long, a long story, many very profound moments of God's presence and ... You know, really, the personal evidence of His presence with me. And I think one of the things that I think about homosexuality and the question of sexuality is it's not really just a question of “Is it right or wrong?”
David Bennett: It's a question of the odyssey. It's a question of “Can God really be good if He's allowed me to have these desires?” And I think the best response that I've experienced to the problem of this suffering, of being same-sex-attracted or gay is God's personal presence.
David Bennett: That that's what meant the most to me, and it gave me the capacity to trust Him with my sexuality. Yeah.
Scott Rae: It also sounds like you had ... that sense of God's presence incarnated in-
David Bennett: Yeah.
Scott Rae: A whole host of pretty significant people in your lives who-
David Bennett: Yeah.
Scott Rae: Came at strategic points that ... I looked at Sean as you were telling that story, and I just said, “This is stuff that you can only explain by some sort of intervention of God.”
David Bennett: Yeah.
Scott Rae: So-
David Bennett: Absolutely, honestly.
Scott Rae: Yeah. I just want to ... I want our listeners to appreciate just how remarkable a story this is and how ... how God just kept pursuing you, and then what I want to ask about is when you finally came to faith-
David Bennett: Yeah.
Scott Rae: You describe in the book that you found yourself caught between two different cultures.
David Bennett: Yes.
Scott Rae: The secular university culture that you had gone to school in had rejected you, but a Christian culture that you were embracing that didn't quite seem to understand the kinds of things that you were dealing with.
David Bennett: Yeah.
Scott Rae: Tell us a little bit about that tension and what the Church can actually do better-
David Bennett: Wow.
Scott Rae: To help people who are coming to faith out of a similar kind of background that you have.
David Bennett: Yeah, there's just so many layers. That's a fantastic question, Scott. Thank you.
David Bennett: I think that these old hat conservative and liberal discourses of the culture war are the most harmful thing for LGBTQI or same-sex-attracted, whatever term you want to use, people, because what it does to us is it puts us in a situation where we have to choose, and we have to hurt each other in the process, because we're being wedged constantly.
David Bennett: You know, between “Adopt this ethic,” or “Adopt that ethic.” And I think we need to really carefully ... We want to keep the truth intact of what the Gospel says about human sexuality and I don't want to compromise that. I think sometimes people have a fear that that's what I'm trying to say, and not in any sense.
David Bennett: I really want that truth to be the center, but the way we get to the conversation has to change with people, and with people of different perspectives. And I've tried to model in my life a way of having conviction, “Yeah, no. I don't think expressing my sexuality as a gay man is compatible with my faith.”
David Bennett: I think that it isn't, but the desire, the attraction itself, there's nothing I've done that is my fault to have that. And the difference of embodiment that I have actually is a sight for the glorification of Jesus and the worship of God because Jesus didn't choose me in spite of my weakness, He chose me precisely because I have these weaknesses and He can be glorified through them.
David Bennett: And we see this in the risen Jesus, but He still has those scars, and it's through His scars that the glory of God is revealed to us, it's not in spite of them. He's not some superman flying in the sky, He is a very human Jesus who is very God at the same time, and I want to regain ...
David Bennett: I think we need to look back at Jesus again. We need to look back at what's the significance of our embodiment and how can we offer our bodies up as living sacrifices and destroy the idols that hold us back from that? Because that's where true freedom is found, and I think that will break down the culture war that we see, and hopefully bring truth and grace together, love and truth together and create safe spaces for LGBTQI and same-sex-attracted people to actually encounter God and to receive His word directly on this.
David Bennett: I think that something this personal and significant to one's humanity, like one's sexuality, you really need to hear from God. Like I needed that. It wasn't an offer someone just to teach me a dogma, I needed the dogma to become incarnate, to put on flesh, to be a community around me that loved me no matter what, and said, “You're going to go through ups and downs, this is really hard, but we're going to be there with you.”
David Bennett: And my aunt, Helen, in this story, she said some incredible things to me that really helped me as a gay person. You know, I walk in the Church and she said, “David, I've read Scripture and I agree with what it says about human sexuality, but that's so easy for me. I don't struggle with same-sex desires. I don't have that reality to deal with, so it's easy for me to believe this aspect of things. But for you, this is a very difficult area, and I want you to know that our church has a policy about leadership and we think that marriage is this way, but whatever happens, you're an indispensable part of the body of Christ, and without you, we would be missing an invaluable part of who we are.”
David Bennett: I mean, hearing that, as a gay person, was so healing.
Scott Rae: Wow.
David Bennett: That I was important to the Church, that I mattered, that I was indispensable. I think that is ... expressing that to the gay community, the Church saying “We need you. We can't do this Kingdom thing without you, you're important. You're part of our ... You're the body of Christ.” You know, for me, that unlocked something that made me feel safe.
David Bennett: Like, I'm not going to be rejected again, and it meant I could listen to the teaching of Scripture and from these people, and not feel like I was going to be condemned again.
David Bennett: So these are just little points I suppose I want to bring out in how we can improve the conversation and break down points along the way that have ... have really polarized our culture on this question. And I think the other thing is the fear of being weaponized.
David Bennett: I mean, when I wrote the book, I was really afraid. Like, “Am I going to be weaponized?” You know, in this conversation on sexuality. “Am I just going to become a poster person to make someone feel justified in their ethical beliefs instead of a real part of the body of Christ that matters?”
David Bennett: So yeah. I think that is a really big key. Not compromising the truth, but applying that truth in love and giving ... creating safe spaces where people can discuss this without the fear of rejection.
Sean McDowell: True.
Scott Rae: That insight was worth the price of the whole podcast. That has [crosstalk 00:19:45].
David Bennett: It took a while to get there, but I think yeah. That's really important.
Scott Rae: That is so profound.
Sean McDowell: Isn't this podcast free, Scott?
Scott Rae: Yes.
Sean McDowell: Sorry, I couldn't resist. Hey, let me ask you this. Let me ask you a question-
Scott Rae: Figure of speech.
Sean McDowell: Let me ask you this question, David, because I think it's related to what you were saying. There's some debates and I don't want to get caught up in the particulars, but whether or not Christians should use the label “gay” and you use it in a very thoughtful nuanced matter.
Sean McDowell: Can you just tell us about your decision and thinking on that, and why it's important to you?
David Bennett: I think Scott, theologically, it's very important to me. This is why. I think that in certain hyper reforms, hyper kind of Greek theology that we've inherited, there's a latent anthropological spiritualism that wants to say, “Now ... You cannot ... Your identity has nothing to do with the body you currently inhabit. You are just a spirit.”
David Bennett: You know? “You're not body, soul, and spirit. You're just a spirit and ... You'll get a resurrected body, but this body doesn't matter. It's deleted, it's going to be destroyed and thrown on the waste tip.”
David Bennett: Now, I've obviously spent with N.T. Wright so I've been a little bit colored in a way when I think about anthropology, but just this basic point that N.T. makes that it's of this creation that we'll be raised from the dead.
David Bennett: Like, this body that I'm in will be raised, and that doesn't mean that I'm going to be gay in the eschaton, or same-sex-attracted in the eschaton in the future, you know, when there's a resurrection, but ... Again, it's through the weakness of this mortal frame that I will then put on immortality.
David Bennett: So somehow in the doctrine of glorification, what the weakness is about ... body, now, matter in eternity. They're going to have some significance and weight that we lift them up faithfully, that we submitted them to Jesus. And so for me the word “gay” is only a placeholder to say, “Here is my weakness. Here is the thing ... One of the very profound, personal weaknesses I have.”
David Bennett: And yet, it's also linked to the very good creation in the beginning, where we were all created for companionship and intimacy. Somehow, you can't just ... disentangle that. It's not like being an alcoholic, or being an adulterer, or something like that.
David Bennett: This is something even more profound, because it links in with the original creation, male and female. This whole idea of the Madre Dei, and so I think there will be a special glory that is given to those who live a life faithfully in a body that is same-sex-attracted, but don't seek to live that out.
David Bennett: I think God will reward that with ... and that, that will glorify His name and be a very profound form of worship that the Church should ... But I don't want to call myself a “gay Christian” without the added celibate, because in our culture it's confusing to people.
David Bennett: And I see this in the generations. My mom and dad see gay as being very linked to being sexually active, whereas my generation, we see it simply as related to one's sexual orientation, not to do that. So I think for me, I only want to refer to it as relating to my sexual orientation.
David Bennett: And it's a way of me boasting in my weakness, and I think it's important, as well, to say that subjectivity matters, that this embodiment is different and matters in the way that we understand personhood and salvation redemption as Christians.
David Bennett: So there's a lot more to say that's in the book, but that's how I would probably to start to say ... You know, I'm not referring to an ultimate identity, I'm referring to an aspect of my identity that will one day be transformed. And that I await that redemption faithfully in celibacy. I would only say “Celibate gay Christian.”
Scott Rae: That-
David Bennett: Do you have any further questions on that, Sean?
Sean McDowell: No, I think that was wonderful, the way you answered it.
Scott Rae: Yeah, David, I think that's a very helpful distinction and I think for our listeners, you just got a taste of the kind of theological depth and insight that is all over the book. So we ... If you want a little bit more of the way our guest here, David, has theologically reasoned, we would highly recommend the book to you.
Scott Rae: David, let me switch gears a little bit. I'm not sure you say it straight out in the book, but you ... you have places where you make suggestions that the Church has today made an idol out of marriage.
Scott Rae: Yeah, I'm wondering just if you'd be a little clearer about that, if you actually believe that's true, and if so-
David Bennett: Yeah.
Scott Rae: How do you think that affects single adults, whether they're same-sex-attracted or not?
David Bennett: That's really helpful. I think that it's a huge issue. It goes right to the heart of our culture that when we as a culture turn our backs from beliefs of God as something “mainstream” or in the kind of secular west, we replaced that with romantic love.
David Bennett: And so the Church naturally has that kind of ... a paucity to the culture. It's kind of adopted the culture's dictum that romantic love is the way to flourish and if you don't have it you're a miserable person. You're kind of done with. You know, you're to be discarded.
David Bennett: And I actually discovered in the Gospel really good news, that my romantic status had absolutely nothing to do with my value as a person in the eyes of God, and that was hugely liberating for me having come from the secular world where I really was defined by my romantic status.
David Bennett: And so, I think at the base of the book, I'm trying to talk about the modification of desire that sits at the base of the Church's idolatry of romantic love, that we sell romantic love in our society every day to try to sell products and a kind of lifestyle of comforts, and ease and success.
David Bennett: When actually, the call of the cross is a very different trajectory [inaudible 00:26:34] to deny ourselves. So the way that that happens I think is with the Holy Spirit, tasting the goodness of the Lord and that then allows us to give up our idols.
David Bennett: I think we need to fall in love with God again, as the church, and that will deliver us from the idolatry of Eros or Aphrodite and bring us back to Jesus and to Yahweh. So I think, yeah, we've got to do that, we've got to allow the prophets to speak and to break the idols, and that will create a space where, I think, gay people who truly want to follow Jesus will feel far more at home.
David Bennett: I constantly felt strange as a celibate person in many of the churches that I attended, because they were Evangelical and I agreed with a lot of their convictions on the Scripture and doctrine. I'm like, “Yes, Amen,” and yet, it came to sexuality or marriage and it was like, “Oh, you have to be married if you're going to do Ministry. You have to ... ”
David Bennett: There was no infrastructure for single people in the church to flourish. There were no semi-monastic communities or missional communities where single people could form alternative family ... These things, I think need to be addressed to create an apologetic that's not just rationally or biblically coherent and faithful, but also practically viable for ... not just gay people, but singles, generally, in the church.
David Bennett: I think, also, for a lot of single women that I know. There's so many single women. In fact, I think the statistic now is that 51% of the American population is single. So-
Sean McDowell: Wow, that's true.
David Bennett: This is something that we have to do as the Church. We have to shift on this. There is no other option but to embrace singleness and celibacy, or the affirming argument will win on the pastoral level-
Sean McDowell: I think that's-
David Bennett: And that would be a sad thing.
Sean McDowell: I think the balance you're saying between being biblically faithful but just practically viable is really the solution. And I think it's also interesting that you said “the affirming argument will win” not just on the merits of the argument but on the lack of us living it out relationally as a church.
Sean McDowell: So let me ask you this last question, then we got to wrap up. You say the Church needs a new apologetic, a way of thought and life that neither demonizes nor elevates the same-sex desires facing many faithful Christians.
Sean McDowell: What do you mean by this? What is that apologetic that the Church needs?
David Bennett: I think we need a positive moral vision. We need something to get us excited about giving ourselves up for Jesus, that says “You know, man. I want to be that radical disciple again. I want to live Jesus' way.” And I think, for me, that apologetic really comes back to the love of God.
David Bennett: That God's love is so incredible that the revelation of God's love in Jesus Christ on the cross as poured out in the Holy Spirit to us, revealed to us by the Holy Spirit, that love is enough. It is satisfying, it's enough. The grace that's been given to us is sufficient to be able to give up anything.
David Bennett: That we don't have a right to live out what we want in our bodies. That our bodies have been bought for a price, and that is actually, paradoxically freedom. Freedom is not being able to do whatever I want to do. Freedom is being led into the life of Jesus and into that love, and letting go of our sovereign control of ourselves, and saying, “God, you can have all that I am.”
David Bennett: And when people can see that actually happen, I think it's wildly attractive to the world. I think people are attracted to that like they were attracted to Jesus, and if we can live deep lives of discipleship, our Evangelism will reach people. It won't be a clanging symbol anymore, it will really touch people, and I think I saw that in all the characters I encountered along my journey.
David Bennett: I saw Jesus in them because they were set apart, they were holy. I want to bring back that ... It's so awesome to be holy. It's really fantastic. Like, the joy I have is someone who's set apart for Jesus. Like, this is better than anything else I've found.
David Bennett: Like the pearl of great price, the Solomonic revelation that the only thing that is new under the sun is knowing God in Jesus, like that's it. For me, that's the apologetic. It comes back to how Jesus lived, who He is, His identity, and how that informs ours.
David Bennett: My testimony is that I haven't found a greater joy than living that way.
Sean McDowell: Amen. David, I think that's so-
David Bennett: But, for me, that's the apologetic.
Sean McDowell: Amen. That's really kind of Gospel 101, that it's not we're fighting against something, but giving a positive vision of what it means to love Jesus, love other people, and then our-
David Bennett: Yeah.
Sean McDowell: Words and our teachings will have more power if we're living out that grace, the way you've talked about.
David Bennett: Yeah.
Sean McDowell: Well, I have thoroughly enjoyed ... I know Scott had, as well.
Scott Rae: This is so rich, David. Thank you.
David Bennett: Oh, thank you both. I want to talk for another half an hour and hear what you have to say, but ...
Sean McDowell: Well, I hope we can meet in person at some point and sit down and just flush some of this out, but in the meantime I want to commend to our listeners your book, War of Loves. It's just ... First off, it's just a riveting story, it's an honest story, and it's rooted in Scripture, which is what we're all about here at Biola and on this podcast.
David Bennett: Yes.
Sean McDowell: Let's find practical solutions, but let's ground them in Scripture. So thanks for your boldness, thanks for your clarity, for writing the book, and for joining us today.
David Bennett: Thank you so much, and thank you so much, Scott. It's been a real pleasure.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, David Bennett, and find more episodes go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically.
Sean McDowell: If you enjoyed today's conversation, please give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.