Foundations: No.73 Autumn 2017

Book Reviews

Transforming Homosexuality: What the Bible says about Sexual Orientation and Change

Denny Burk and Heath Lambert, P&R Publishing Co., 2015, 138pp, £6.99 (£3.26 Kindle)

This book comes well recommended, with a foreword by R. Albert Mohler Jr and commendations from Sam Allberry, John Macarthur and Rosaria Butterfield. Heath Lambert is a professor of biblical counselling at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) and executive director of the Association of Certified Biblical Counsellors.

The question they address is a simple but important one: is homosexual desire (or orientation, or attraction – the authors use these terms as, for practical purposes, equivalent) sinful? Hard on its heels comes a subsidiary: if it is, can people who experience it change? The authors give a resounding “yes” to both questions.

Christians will agree, say the authors, that homosexual behaviour is sinful. There is more debate about homosexual desire. Lambert and Burk argue that it, too, is sinful. Their interest is not just in “ethics”. They are concerned for “ministry” to people who experience same-sex attraction: “People who struggle with homosexual desires and behaviours need to change” (15). The goal, however, they argue, is not to become heterosexual, but holy.

Part One of the book, “The Ethics of Desire” asks “What is same-sex attraction?” and uses as a starting point the American Psychological Association’s definition of sexual orientation: an enduring pattern of attractions that has three elements – sexual attraction, emotional and romantic attraction and a sense of identity as (in this case) homosexual. They summarise different “Christian” responses to current homosexuality debates – liberal, which rejects Scripture’s authority; revisionist, which accom-modates Scripture to the practice of homosexuality; neo-traditional, which sees homosexual behaviour, but not orientation in itself, as wrong; and traditional – homosexual orientation is also wrong and needs to be and can be sanctified. This last reflects the authors’ view. They reject the idea that homosexual attraction at either the sexual or emotional level can be right or that anyone should find their sense of identity in their sexual orientation.

“Is same-sex attraction sinful?” asks the next chapter. What does the Bible say about the pre-behavioural components of sexual sin? Drawing on the Bible, helped by Augustine, Calvin and Hodge they conclude that the “pre-moral disposition”, not just our conscious choices, is sinful. Original sin manifests itself in many ways. It, of course, pollutes all we do – praying and eating as well as sexual activity. What is it that makes a desire in itself sinful? Well, if it is for the wrong object: while our sinful nature corrupts all we do, there are some desires that are wrong in themselves. This is when they are directed at the wrong thing, something forbidden by God. Right and wrong are defined by God’s law. Hence sin is any breach of, or want of conformity to, the law of God. To desire your wife sexually is not sinful in itself (though it will be tainted by sin) as it is within the covenant of marriage; the lustful look at another woman is wrong (Matt 5:27,28) as it is for a forbidden object.

Homosexual longings, therefore, are ipso facto unlawful. To desire a person of your own sex can never be according to God’s purposes. This includes sexual, but also romantic/emotional desire. Same-sex attraction can never result in glorifying God in marriage. Same-sex attraction leads, in principle, to same-sex behaviour. It is sinful and it needs to be repented of.

How?

Part Two of the book deals with “The Path of Transformation”. The authors unroll a programme for change. In his foreword Al Mohler summarises the agenda of the book:

…Christians cannot accept any argument suggesting the impossibility of fundamentally reorienting a believer’s desires in such a way that increasingly pleases God and is increasingly obedient to Christ. To the contrary, we must argue that this process is exactly what the Christian life is to demonstrate. As Paul writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2Corinthians 5:17) (10).

It is a myth, therefore, that change is impossible or harmful. “Reparative therapy” comes under fire; it is basically secular, working from the unproven and unbiblical assumption that homosexual desire derives from broken childhood relationships. Nor does change require as its goal heterosexual desire. The biblical goal is sex within the marriage covenant, not indiscriminate heterosexual desire.

The sexual desire that is commanded [in Scripture] is directed not to women in general but to one’s wife in particular. In the Bible, men and women are to have sexual desire for their spouse, not for the opposite sex in general.

What the Bible commands, therefore, is not heterosexuality but holiness. Christians are called to pursue purity. In biblical terms this means that Christians are called to mortify every sexual desire that is not directed toward one’s spouse in biblical marriage. This creates a wonderful amount of freedom for those struggling with homosexual attraction. They no longer have to pursue being “straight” as the only goal. They can, instead, pursue the biblical goal of purity (75).

Some people do testify to a change from same-sex to opposite-sex attraction, say the authors, but it is not the goal of biblical counselling. Many do not experience a change in this area; many remain single. The authors insist that change will not happen without repentance. Same sex desire must be recognised for what it is – sin – and be repented of.

“A Biblical Path to Change” (chapter 4) is basically an exposition of Ephesians 5:1-21. People struggling with same-sex attraction (along with the rest of us) must repent of hatred and pursue love (vv. 1-2); repent of covetousness and pursue gratitude (vv. 3-4) etc. They must also repent of “sinful concealing and pursue open accountability”. Based on vv. 11-14 (“For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible…”) the counsellee is urged to confess everything to a trustworthy friend (of the same sex). Burk and Lambert write:

Finally, if you don’t walk in the light, the warnings of this passage will apply to you. If you do not walk as Jesus walked, you will prove that you never knew Jesus. Which is worse? To experience the fleeting shame of exposing your hidden sins to someone who loves you and wants to help? Or to experience separation from Christ forever as you pay the penalty for those hidden sins? (96).

“Confessing all” to a human being in relation to sexual sins may be advisable and very helpful; whether it is a matter of salvation, as the authors imply here, is doubtful.

The writers are insistent that the gospel will change a person. But they are realistic too. Not everyone will change as much as they would like. Certainly not everyone will become heterosexual – but that is not the biblical aim: the goal is holiness, not heterosexuality. Many will go on struggling with same-sex attraction all their lives. But do not lose faith or hope in the power of the gospel and the Holy Spirit to bring about change.

Evangelicals need to change too, asserts the last chapter. We must learn to be able to speak the truth about homosexuality: both behaviour and desire are sinful. We must also be humble. Remember that Paul speaks in 1 Timothy 1 of homosexuality being a sin, but then says that he was the foremost sinner – and his sins were nothing to do with same-sex attraction. We need to be a friend to people struggling with same-sex attraction; to listen, be compassionate, share the gospel, oppose bullying, receive those who a come to us or are converted, and recognise that all of us need to grow in grace.

This is an illuminating and helpful book. Space does not allow justice to be done to its discussion of the nature of sin, original sin and temptation. It is the kind of discussion that is needed on this subject. To condemn homosexual behavior, but to argue that homosexual desire is not morally culpable, is untenable. The purposes of God in creation and his law do not permit such a fudge. The way expounded by Burk and Lambert is harder, but is faithful to Scripture, and can therefore lay claim to the power of the gospel for change. It reminds us, too, that God is interested in the heart, not just behaviour. The book is pastoral and whilst the “ethics: section lays down the traditional (and biblical) position without compromise, the “ministry” chapters outline a mainly helpful way of compassionate care.

This book should be read by pastors and others involved in counselling people struggling with same-sex attraction. Its approach is sound. It will enable you better to help the sinner because you will be better equipped to identify the sin.

Mostyn Roberts
Pastor, Welwyn Evangelical Church

 

Next book review >>   Back to contents page >>