EDITOR’S NOTE: In what follows, Denny Burk, professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, and Heath Lambert, assistant professor of biblical counseling, discuss their new book, Transforming Homosexuality, with Towers writer Annie Corser.
AC: Why did you pursue writing this book together?
DB: My initial concern was driven by things I was seeing in evangelical Christianity, in which we saw real clarity among conservative, well-meaning Christians about what Scripture teaches about homosexual behavior but not so much clarity about same-sex attraction.
HL: And he was sorting through issues of ethics regarding sexuality and I was sorting through issues of ministry regarding sexuality — counseling people. And so these two things are perfect complements to one another. We had the same set of concerns about some developments we saw in evangelicalism and with being friends and going to church together, so it seemed like a natural thing to do.
DB: We pushed the pause button on everything to write this book.
AC: Do either of you have a personal connection, either a family member or a friend, who struggles with homosexuality that impacted the way that you wrote this book?
HL: I’ve got family members who have struggled with this, and not just family members, but so much of my experience with this is through people I’ve come to know in the context of counseling who wanted help. Most of the time, the people I do counseling with become my dear friends. My personal experience has proven that this is a problem that causes a lot of deep pain in the lives of people that encounter it, and it also is a problem where there are not good answers out there. You’ve either got the secular notion of just acceptance, just do it, but that doesn’t resonate with people who feel guilty and they know it’s a sin and they want to be different. And then you’ve got another secular option of turning away from homosexual sin; it’s the reparative theory option but there’s not a stitch of grace in reparative therapy, there’s no Jesus, there’s no Bible, it’s just behavior modification. People feel trapped if you don’t get them the Bible and you don’t give them the gospel of Jesus Christ.
DB: I have same-sex attracted friends as well, including friends who live in the lifestyle. One thing that’s affected me by those relationships is I don’t view this as winning an argument or winning a culture war, it really is about the souls of men and women and it really is about winning them to Jesus. At the end of the day, what we really want is for people to be coming to the gospel and embracing Jesus as Lord and Savior. So, this is not just an issue, it’s about people.
AC: What does it look like for a church to minister to those struggling with same-sex attraction?
HL: Churches have to realize that there are people who struggle with same-sex attraction in the church. It’s not like they might show up one day and you need to know what to say; there are people there now. If you make it us versus them, then the person sitting in there that perhaps loves Jesus and loves the Bible but struggles with these desires and you don’t know how to talk about them and you make it sound like it’s us versus them, then they all of a sudden feel like they don’t belong and you’ve actually closed the door to ministry to them.
So Christians talk about sin, we talk about sinful behavior, we talk about sinful desires, but we also are the people that are never allowed to talk about sin without talking about the grace of Jesus. We also are the people that understand that all of the sins that everyone struggles with out there are the same sins that people struggle with inside the church house. We have to talk about this like that. These people are in our number, the grace of Jesus is available to them.
AC: Why do you think it’s difficult for people to grasp the idea that sin is both an action and innate?
DB: There is the thought that sin can only be those things that we choose to do. And that’s a misunderstanding of the way the Bible talks about sin. You have Jesus saying things like, from the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” which means to some extent he’s recognizing that they don’t know the gravity of the sin they’ve committed in crucifying the Son of God and it’s still a sin and they need forgiveness for what they’re doing.
You can go back to the whole Old Testament tradition and you can see that there are sets of sacrifices that are set aside for sins that were committed unintentionally. Things that are violations of God’s law that were committed on accident and they still required a sacrifice for sin. The punishment might not have been as severe as somebody who did it high handedly but it was still treated as something that needed a sacrifice. What that’s all bearing witness to is the fact that we don’t just sin in our deeds but we sin in who we are. Our nature is corrupted by the fall. Sin is not just what we choose, it’s what we are, and so the choices that we make and sometimes the things we do emerge rather spontaneously from our nature.
Those are biblical categories that are foreign to people who are thinking in your standard, ‘well if I didn’t mean to do it, it can’t be a sin,’ or, ‘if I was born feeling this way, it can’t be a sin,’ or, ‘if it feels natural, it can’t be a sin.’ Scripture teaches that there are a lot of things that feel natural to us that are sinful, and so we’re not really saying anything new in this book, we’re saying old things about a topic that Christians are now just grappling with in a serious way. But this is just Christian Anthropology 101. It’s the doctrine of original sin, now being applied to the issue of sexuality.
AC: You say someone who struggles with same-sex attraction should “seek to honor Jesus with their sexuality.” How can Christians explain that in a counseling situation?
HL: What does it mean to honor Jesus with your sexuality? One of the things that we rule out in the book is that there’s one option. There is the secular view of reparative therapy, which argues you are cured when you have no same-sex attraction at all, you have the presence of opposite sex attraction, and then you get married and have babies and there’s no looking back. But there’s no place in the Bible where heterosexuality is commanded. In fact, it’s never commanded in the Bible to have indiscriminate heterosexual desire. What that means is there are a couple of paths to honoring God with your sexuality. You could pursue marriage, you have the freedom to do it; it’s not a sin to not pursue marriage if you are a person who struggles or who has struggled with same-sex attraction and does not have the presence of opposite-sex attraction — there’s nothing wrong with you. Singleness is honored in the Bible, not defamed. A person who is single and has struggled with same-sex attraction might get to a point where they do experience complete victory over their same-sex lust. And we would say that’s wonderful. If they don’t have the presence of opposite-sex desires again and they’re not going to get married, they’re going to stay single and they don’t struggle with lust, that’s going to be true for some people. And then there’s going to be some people who though they’re on the winning side of victory they’re aware that they have lustful thoughts come into their minds and those lustful thoughts are of the same-sex variety. When that happens they repent of that lust, they turn to Jesus Christ for the umpteenth time, and they fight for purity anew and afresh. All of that, whether it’s any of those three, all of them are examples of 2 Corinthians 3:18 where we’re being transformed from one degree of glory to the next.
So sexual purity happens when I resist all sexual sin whether it manifests in behavior or desire and when I fight for chastity. And chastity means I’m sexually involved with the person I’m supposed to be sexually involved with. If I’m married, that’s my spouse, if I’m not married, then it’s no one.
DB: The Bible doesn’t treat the absence of heterosexual desire as a problem. If anything it treats it as a gift — Matthew 19, 1 Corinthians 7 — and so that’s where reparative theory gets off because it views the absence of heterosexual desire as a problem to be fixed. We’re arguing that’s not the problem, the problem is the presence of homosexual desire that has to be repented of and which Christians can experience victory over. If heterosexual desires don’t emerge in their place, we’re not going to treat that as bad. We don’t have biblical authorization to do that, so that’s what we’re trying to say.