Denny Burk & Heath Lambert, Transforming Homosexuality: What the Bible Says About Sexual Orientation and Change (P&R, 2015)
Is the experience of same-sex attraction, even when it is not acted upon, sinful? And what does Christian transformation look like for someone who experiences same-sex attraction? These are the two questions at the heart of Transforming Homosexuality.
Both of these are important questions to ask, and yet they are questions that are rarely asked. Denny Burk and Heath Lambert tackle both head on. In the process, they make some helpful points, but I’ve not been fully convinced by their answers.
Answering the questions
Transforming Homosexuality falls into two sections. The first section tackles the question of the morality of same-sex attraction. Is the experience of same-sex attraction, in itself, sinful? After first discussing what same-sex attraction is, the authors offer their answer to the question: same-sex attraction is sinful because a desire for something sinful is itself sin. They seek to offer a scriptural defence of this position, drawing especially on Matthew 5:27-28. The section closes with the conclusion that those who experience same-sex attraction must ‘wage war against’ it (p.58).
The second section considers what Christian transformation looks like for someone who experiences same-sex attraction. Burk and Lambert are keen to dispel some myths about change and offer a strong rejection of reparative therapy. They then offer an exposition of Ephesians 5:1-19 to show how ‘normal means of grace’ (p.83) can be employed to seek transformation. A final chapter offers some advice to churches on how we can best welcome and support those struggling with same-sex attraction.
Reading Transforming Homosexuality left me with mixed feelings. There are some elements I really appreciated. I value the courage shown by the authors in tackling head on such controversial but important questions. What I most appreciated was the strong pushback against reparative therapy (pp.77-79). The authors note, rightly, that reparative therapy is not a biblical way of responding to the experience of same-sex attraction because it is based on a perspective on the causes of same-sex attraction that is inaccurate and because the practice is not sufficiently rooted in biblical teaching. These are some of the same reasons that we here at Living Out do not support reparative therapy.
However, despite these helpful elements, there were several aspects of the book that I found problematic and that left me unconvinced of the authors’ conclusions.
One of these was Burk and Lambert’s perception of godly sexuality. While often stating that the goal is holiness not heterosexuality (e.g. pp.14, 75), they seem actually to present a complete absence of sexuality – what we might call asexuality – as the goal for single people. For example, they state that ‘men and women are to have sexual desire for their spouse, not for the opposite sex in general’ and that ‘Christians are called to mortify every sexual desire that is not directed towards one’s spouse in biblical marriage’ (p.75). They see this as the logical conclusion from the view that desire for something sinful is itself sin. While they do note that the same logic makes the conclusion relevant to opposite-sex attracted people (p.28 fn.18), this is a point that is somewhat brushed over, and it feels unfortunate that this key point is applied thoroughly to a minority and yet not really applied to the much larger majority for whom it is also relevant.
Regardless of who it is applied to, I think this view of sexual holiness is problematic. It seems to suggest that our experience of being sexual creatures is always sinful until we marry (if we ever do). But this doesn’t fit with the creation narratives where our existence as sexual beings is part of God’s good creation, not just something that emerges when sin enters the world. Presumably our creation as sexual beings, before the entry of sin, means there must be a holy way of living as a sexual being even while unmarried. I’m not sure that asexuality can be what it means to live in sexual purity as a single person.
This point links to an unhelpful ambiguity in the book. As I turned the final page, I reflected that I’m still not really sure what Burk and Lambert think I should be aiming for. On several occasions they state that the goal is holiness not heterosexuality, but they are also very clear that is it not acceptable for a Christian to remain same-sex attracted (p.58). They actually go so far as to say that change in both behaviour and desires is ‘a crucial test of our salvation’ (p.92), while also acknowledging that a majority of Christians who experience same-sex attraction don’t experience change in their desires (p.59). This feels rather unsettling. I am told that my desires must change or there is reason to question my salvation, but I am also told that most people like me don’t experience change in their desires. Does this mean God can’t save same-sex attracted people? Does it mean God can’t save me? There’s an ambiguity here that could actually be very unsettling for those of us who find ourselves experiencing same-sex attraction.
But perhaps the most problematic element of the book is in its overall conclusion. Burk and Lambert state that those of us who experience same-sex attraction need to seek a transformation of our desires. They reach this conclusion through theological reasoning, but if we then measure that conclusion against the teaching of Scripture, it faces some problems. The Bible recognises that we all experience a mix of desires – some good and some bad. It recognises that we will all continue to experience sinful desires throughout this life (Romans 6:12; Galatians 5:16) but calls us to handle them rightly – to flee from them (1 Timothy 6:9), abstain from them (1 Peter 2:11) and put them to death (Colossians 3:5). But never are we told to seek their transformation or to expect that they will cease to affect us in this age. When we take it back to Scripture, Burk and Lambert’s conclusion doesn’t seem to fit with biblical teaching, and that makes it highly problematic.
A helpful book
For all the problematic elements of Transforming Homosexuality, I did find it a helpful book to read. In tackling two important, controversial questions, it caused me to think more deeply about topics where I had perhaps not thought deeply enough. Even if I don’t agree with the conclusions reached in the book, wrestling with them has helped my thinking. And wrestling with those questions has also caused me to reflect afresh on God’s challenge to me – and to all of us – to steward my sexuality well, to be ruthless about fleeing from sexual sin, and to thrive through a life of Spirit-empowered purity.