Interview with Denny Burk, co-author of TRANSFORMING HOMOSEXUALITY: WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS ABOUT SEXUAL ORIENTATION AND CHANGE

Published on October 19, 2015 by Todd Scacewater

P&R, 2015 | 136 pages

Books At a Glance (Fred Zaspel)


Hi! This is Fred Zaspel, editor of Books at a Glance. We’re here today to talk with Dr. Denny Burk, co-author with Heath Lambert of the new book,
Transforming Homosexuality: What the Bible Says About Sexual Orientation and Change. A very contemporary title. I can hardly imagine a more contemporary subject to address, and in fact, they’re hoping to make some genuine contribution to the discussion. I’ve enjoyed reading the book. We’re glad to talk to Dr. Burk today. Denny is the Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky. Heath Lambert also is a professor there at Boyce College, as well as at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Denny is here today to talk with us about their new book. Thanks for being with us, Denny.

Burk:
Thank you for having me on, Fred.
 

Zaspel:
All right, first, let’s talk about your book just in broad strokes. What’s it all about? There’s an ever-increasing number of books coming on the market today from Christians on the subject of homosexuality, but you’re trying to fill a niche. What is the contribution you’re trying to make?

Burk:
Well, our book is not like other Christian books on homosexuality. We’re trying to address an issue that we think has been missed, and it is the issue of sexual orientation. So, how are Christians supposed to think about this? What’s the pastoral, ministerial upshot of what the Bible says about orientation, if it says anything? There is a lot of agreement, I think, among evangelical Christians, that homosexual behavior is sinful. Obviously, that point is contested by some. But, within evangelical circles, most people agree that homosexual behavior is sinful. We’re trying to address the issue of homosexual desire. How do we view homosexual desire, and therefore, how do we view homosexual orientation? Is that sinful? And if it is, what does it mean for a person who experiences same-sex attraction to \ change? What does repentance look like? So that’s what we’re trying to get in the middle of, is actually a debate that’s going on between evangelicals right now.
 

Zaspel:
I thought your treatment of same-sex attraction and the ethics of that was particularly insightful. I think that you guys really have addressed that subject more pointedly and more insightfully than certainly anything else I’ve read. Let’s talk about that a little more. Scripture condemns homosexual behavior as sinful. Like you say, most evangelicals agree with that. But what does the Bible have to say about homosexual desire? On what ground could we be held accountable for involuntary desires? Talk to us about all that.

Burk:
Yeah, well, the common moral assumption that people make is that you are only accountable for that which you choose to do. Because of that more philosophical, ethical assumption, they sort of project that onto the Bible’s definition of sin. The problem with that is that the Bible doesn’t speak about sin that way. There are all manner of sinful tendencies and desires and things that we feel that, quite frankly, emerge spontaneously from just within our own hearts that are still labeled as sinful in Scripture. When you think about pride, for instance—pride is something that, I suppose, you could choose to feel pride, but most of us experience pride emerging rather spontaneously from our nature. It is just something that we become aware that we’re feeling and experiencing when it happens. It is not necessarily something that we remember choosing. Covetousness, anger—when was the last time that you got angry? Do you remember choosing to do it, or did you sort of respond and this feeling came up spontaneously from your nature? So this idea that we can only call sin that which we remember choosing to do is not what corresponds to scriptural categories. I was just teaching in my church Sunday School class last Sunday on 1st John 3, where in 1st John 3, John says sin is lawlessness. That’s reflected in the confessions that my own children are learning. If you ask my child, her catechism question is, “What is sin?” Sin is defined as any transgression against the law of God without respect to its chosenness or intentionality. It is any transgression. If you look at the Old Testament, the Old Testament has a category of sacrifices for sins committed unintentionally. So if you’re defining sin as any transgression against the law of God, that’s quite different than defining moral accountability only according to things that you remember choosing to do. There are any number of desires and dispositions that emerge from our nature that the Bible would call sinful. This is controversial. This is actually an old discussion, Fred, because this is a difference between Protestants and Catholics. Roman Catholic theology has a different view on this than Protestants have typically had. Protestants, by and large, have defined sin as any transgression against the law of God. If you have a desire for something that is prohibited, that desire would be a transgression against God’s law.
 

Zaspel:
So it is not just the doing of something that is forbidden, but my very wanting of it says something about me?

Burk:
Absolutely. So, this is the way that Jesus taught about it. Jesus said in John 5 that whoever looks upon a woman to desire her sexually has already committed adultery with her in his heart. So that’s just Jesus connecting the seventh commandment to the tenth commandment. Jesus wasn’t innovating when He said that in the Sermon on the Mount. He was just recognizing that the Ten Commandments say thou shall not commit adultery, and then in the tenth commandment it says that thou shalt not covet, or desire, your neighbor’s wife. So it is not just, don’t commit adultery—it is don’t desire adultery. Both of those things are prohibited in the Ten Commandments. So our desires have a moral component to them that is taught in both the Old and New Testaments, and if you’re desire is contrary to God’s will, then your desire can become something that you need to repent of. That applies to all sinful desires, and that includes same-sex desires.
 

Zaspel:
Great. Well, as I said, that was some of the best that I’ve read on the subject. I think that was worth the price of the book right there. I would encourage people to get it just for that discussion. I think it was very well rounded and very insightful. You mention four different approaches to homosexual desire. We don’t need to spend a lot of time on this, but I think that it might be helpful for people if you would frame that out a little bit. There are the liberal, revisionist, neo-traditional, and traditional approaches. What do you mean by that? Distinguish yourself in that.

Burk:
Yeah, well, the liberal approach to this is the kind that says that we know what the Bible says, that it prohibits homosexuality and it prohibits same-sex attraction, but we think the Bible’s wrong. So, it is interesting, because the liberal approach—actually, their interpretation agrees sometimes with the conservative approach, it is just that the liberals will say that we think that’s wrong. The Bible’s wrong about this thing. You can read people like Luke Timothy Johnson, an Old Testament scholar who says that the biblical material is straightforward on this, and he says we just reject the straightforward meaning of Scripture. That’s what he says. A lot of people who hold that point of view insist—obviously, they don’t have Christian integrity because it denies the authority of Scripture. The revisionist view is different from the liberal view, as we termed it, but there is a certain movement to try to do a tip of the hat to the Bible’s authority, but to say that what the Bible always said about homosexuality is not what it really says. So there’s a group of people, like Matthew Vines on the more scholarly level, Robert Brownson, that are making the case that those condemnations that we thought we saw in Romans 1 and 1st Corinthians 6 and 1st Timothy 1, those condemnations of homosexual behavior are not really condemnations. If you just understand the historical background enough, if you just understand that they weren’t really talking about sexual orientation, if you just had a proper interpretation of Scripture, you would know that Scripture doesn’t really prohibit homosexuality. That’s the revisionist view, and it sort of gets rid of the Bible by redefining the Bible. I would put both the revisionist and the liberal points view outside the view of Christian faithfulness. On the other side are those who I would term neo-traditionalists and kind of the traditional view. Neo-traditionalists are those who would recognize the sinfulness of homosexual behavior, and they do that because they believe in the authority in Scripture. But they don’t think that same-sex attraction is necessarily sinful. Folks like Wesley Hill, who I think is a brother, but I think he is sadly mistaken on this—he argues that same-sex attraction is actually an occasion for holiness, and for building holy same-sex friendships. He doesn’t seem to think that same-sex attraction is necessarily sinful. So this neo-traditional view is kind of schizophrenic in that it would see the sinfulness of homosexual behavior but not necessarily homosexual attraction. We’re arguing for what we think is the biblical view. We’re calling it the traditional view, which says that the Bible teaches that both homosexual behavior and same-sex attraction are occasions for repentance, both of them are. If we’re going to be renewed in the image of Christ, we have to call both of those things what the Bible calls them–sinful, and we have to turn from them and repent in faith, repenting from sin and trusting in Christ. So that is the point of view that we’re advocating.
 

Zaspel:
Okay. What about sexual orientation as identity? What are your concerns there? Sexual orientation as identity? And what factors ought, and ought not, shape our identity?

Burk:
The problem with this sexual orientation category is that a lot of people are teaching it as if it is some kind of category that the Bible doesn’t speak to. When people say that, they typically don’t know what the authorities mean when they say sexual orientation. In our book, we just access the definition that is used by the APA—the American Psychological Association. Really, all they’ve done is define orientation as an enduring pattern of sexual desire, either to the same sex, opposite sex, or both sexes. So orientation is defined as how you experience sexual desire, not a fleeting sexual desire but an enduring pattern of it. If it endures over a significant amount of time, billing someone as either heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual, according to the APA. So if the APA, the recognized secular authorities, are defining orientation as a pattern of desire, you can’t say that the Bible doesn’t speak to orientation, because the Bible speaks everywhere to our desires, even desires that may seem natural to us, or may seem fundamental to our nature. The Bible speaks to those and it puts them in a moral frame. So we can’t declare same-sex orientation as something the Bible doesn’t address. Now, when it comes to this question of identity, what we have in the post-sexual revolution [inaudible], is the idea that we are the sum total of our fallen sexual desires. So identity is defined as whatever your pattern of attraction is, that is in some sense who you are. What I’m saying is that orientation as identity is something that we as Christians can’t accept. We can’t define ourselves as the sum total of sinful sexual attractions. That is something that the Bible tells us not to do. The Bible defines personhood in a completely different way. We are image-bearers created in the likeness of almighty God, and we are made for Him and not for ourselves, and the sinful desires that we feel are actually distortions of that image.
 

Zaspel:
Very good. Let’s talk about the back half of your book—the path to transformation. First of all, it would probably be helpful just to highlight how this very concept of transforming homosexuality is at odds with the current thinking of our society, and then how Scripture should shape our thinking on the matter.

Burk:
Well, the title of our book, Transforming Homosexuality—we took that from 2nd Corinthians 3:18, which said that we all, with unveiled face, are beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord. We all are being transformed into the same image just as from the Lord, who is the Spirit. This is just Paul’s way of saying that if you are a Christian, you have the Spirit of God living inside of you, and if the Spirit of God is living inside of you, that Spirit is transforming you into the image of Jesus. That is the work of the Spirit inside every believer. So what we’re arguing is that actually, God’s plan for people who experience same-sex attraction is the same plan that He has for every Christian. He intends them to be renewed into the image of Jesus, and that fundamentally means that they have to change. Change is defined as renewal unto the image of Christ. We just want to make sure that every Christian, whether they experience same-sex attraction or not, that every Christian understands that their life is now defined by this work of the Spirit in their lives, and if they’re not committed to a process of change, then they can’t be Christians, because fundamental to Christianity is this idea of being transformed into the image of Jesus.
 

Zaspel:
Very good. Maybe it would be helpful to highlight some of the myths regarding transformation, what transformation is not and other mistaken ways of thinking about biblical change.

Burk:
Well, when you think about this is a controversial issue when you hear it discussed in the culture, because there is a debate about whether sexual orientation can actually change. We’re actually not arguing for what is typically thought of as change of orientation in kind of the standard terms that is often used. We don’t believe that the goal of change is heterosexuality—it is holiness. This is where I think a lot of people make a mistake. For years, evangelical churches have often made the mistake of—there would be someone who experienced same-sex attraction in the church who didn’t want to experience that, so the evangelical church would farm them out to some [inaudible] church ministry that would try to flip them over to being a heterosexual. Reparative therapy was very popular in the last couple of decades among evangelicals, and the goal of reparative therapy was to flip same-sex desire into heterosexual desire. The problem with that is that while the Bible does treat same-sex desire as sinful, it doesn’t treat the absence of heterosexual desire as sinful. In fact, if you read Matthew 19 and Jesus’ words, and you read 1st Corinthians 7, the absence of heterosexual desire is sometimes spoken of as a gift. So, turning people into having heterosexual desire is not necessarily the goal. You can be holy and not have heterosexual desire. But holiness does mean the elimination of same-sex desire. So the reparative therapy project was trying to make people into heterosexually-attracted people, and is really not the goal of biblical change. The goal of biblical change is repentant faith. So the sinful thing is same-sex desire and the behavior that flows from it, and we want to teach people repentance of that sin. If the Lord decides to gift that person with the ability to be married and to have normal marital relations with a person of the opposite sex, we receive that as a gift of God. If a repentant same-sex person—if the Lord doesn’t replace that with the ability to enter into the covenant of marriage with the opposite sex, then that’s okay too. We don’t view that as deficient in terms of sanctification, that they’re not married in that way, so we’ve kind of been mixed up about these things. So we’ve taken on kind of secular ideas about what change should look like, and we’re trying to clarify those things in the book.


Zaspel:
Okay, so celibacy can be a gift of God as well?

Burk:
That’s exactly right. We shouldn’t view the absence of heterosexual desire as a problem necessarily. It may not be. It may be a gift.
 

Zaspel:
That’s a good distinction. All right, in terms of the transforming homosexuality, what is the role of repentance in all of that? Maybe you can talk a little bit about what repentance is and what repentance demands in this context.

Burk:
Well, the thing that we’re concerned about is what we labeled the neo-traditional approach, which is telling people that Christians who experience same-sex attractions, is telling them that their attractions are good and can be turned towards holy ends and can enhance their same-sex friendships. What we’re saying is that that’s actually destructive. Even if they’re maintaining a celibate lifestyle, telling them that same-sex attraction is something that can be pursued or can be turned into a holy direction is something that is going to undermine them. That’s why we’re emphasizing the idea of repentance not just from sinful behavior, but also from the sinful desires that lead to the behavior. If you experience an orientation, an enduring pattern of sexual attraction to the same sex, that you need to regard that as an occasion for repentance. Whenever you experience it, whenever a guy is experiencing a sexual attraction for a person of the same sex, that moment is an occasion for saying that that is not from the Lord, and God, I’m turning this over to you, and I’m turning from this. When we encourage same-sex attracted people to do that, we’re actually encouraging them to do what every Christian should do when they experience a sinful sexual attraction. They should turn from it in repentance and trust the Lord to save them and sustain them in faithfulness. So for us, this is kind of the application of Christianity 101 to an issue that people have been saying is different, that we’re going to treat this issue of same-sex attraction differently than all other sinful attractions. We’re saying no, it is just like all the other sinful attractions we experience. We treat it with repentance and faith.
 

Zaspel:
Very good. This next question—we can’t keep you here all day and you can’t rewrite the book for us verbally, but maybe you can just highlight or verbalize the process of change that Scripture offers.

Burk:
Well, it is a putting off and a putting on, just to summarize it. It is a putting off the old things, and a conscious turning away from the things that we know are sinful, from the occasions that we know produce and encourage sinful thoughts and attractions. It is a turning away from the situations in which we know that we are tempted and that we know we are prone to fall. So it is interesting when you read through our book, when it talks about some of the more practical steps in the second half of the book, these practical steps are actually applicable across the board for all Christians. So, in other words, it is a putting away and a putting on, a putting away of the sinful things and a putting on of the tings that make for righteousness. So we want to teach not just repentance, but also teach Christians to access the means of grace and all that the Lord has provided to us to walk in faithfulness and holiness. The Bible teaches in Peter that he has given us everything that we need for life and godliness, and we believe that applies to everyone. So the normal means of grace, the preached Word, the fellowship of the saints, the Lord’s table bearing witness every week, frequently I would hope in our churches, all of those things are to be aimed at the renewal of the heart and mind of sinners, and that includes same-sex-attracted sinners.


Zaspel:
All right, let’s come a little closer to home. How do we, the Church, need to change with respect to all of this?

Burk:
Well, you know, evangelical Christians have kind of had a spotted history when it comes to thinking about and dealing with same-sex-attracted people who come into our churches. A lot of evangelicals have—I’m not saying everyone—but a lot of them have just not known what to do. So instead of ministering to them within the normal means of grace that the Lord has provided, and viewing those means of grace as sufficient, a lot of evangelicals have been farming them out and saying, go over to this [inaudible] church ministry and come back when you’re all better. That’s just not going to do. We have got to as a church, we have got to embrace brothers and sisters who experience these struggles, and we have got to figure out how to fold them into the life of the Church in a way that helps them and strengthens them. What we lay out in the book, that involves speaking the truth in love to them, which means we continue to speak the truth about the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality. We don’t back off from that one bit. We recognize that the Bible says that both homosexual desire and deed is sinful. But then we also speak the truth about the Gospel to them, that the Gospel is for sinners. The Bible says that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and we believe that the Gospel is for all sinners, not just certain categories that we’re comfortable with. When the Lord brings into our midst people who are coming to Christ and continue to experience struggles with same-sex attraction, we need to have a robust Gospel that speaks to their situation. Then the other thing that we would say is we need to speak with humility in the sense that same-sex-attracted sinners are not so different from us, in that we are all dealing with a fallen set of desires and patterns of attraction that are deeply embedded within our hearts. That ought to make us humble when we talk to each other and we think about the different struggles that people experience. It is interesting that in 1st Timothy 1, the apostle Paul lists off all these different people who are lawbreakers. He talks about kidnappers, people who murder their parents, and he lists homosexuality in this list of people who are lawbreakers. But then he says he is so grateful for the mercy of God that has come to him, the chief of sinners, and he said he himself is a sinner, among whom I am the foremost, so after all this list of lawbreakers he says he is the worst one of the lot. I think that we need to have that attitude, that I may not actually be the most sinful person in the world, but I ought to feel like it. I ought to feel like my sin against God is the most significant sin that I know of, and that ought to inculcate in us a spirit of humility just like Paul demonstrated when he talked about homosexuality in 1st Timothy 1. So I think that our churches can have open arms, welcoming arms, to same-sex-attracted sinners just like they have for all other kinds of sinners, and that’s what we’re arguing for.
 

Zaspel:
Indeed. Well, thanks, Denny. I think the work that you guys have put into this book has just been excellent, and I hope that our listeners, our readers will take advantage of it and get it. Again, this is Denny Burk that is with us today, co-author with Heath Lambert of the new book Transforming Homosexuality: What the Bible Says about Sexual Orientation and Change. Thanks a lot, Denny. We appreciate your being here with us.

Burk:
Thank you, Fred.

Buy the books

TRANSFORMING HOMOSEXUALITY: WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS ABOUT SEXUAL ORIENTATION AND CHANGE

P&R, 2015 | 136 pages