I have followed Denny Burk's blog for...must be at least ten years [writing in 2015]. I share a lot of theological convictions with him. I have also met someone who knew him, so I know he is a real person! (grin) I appreciate him and his writing. I agree with a lot of what he has to say on homosexuality, and believe the book, Transforming Homosexuality that he and Heath Lambert wrote would be a valuable read.
But I disagree with him on the points he makes in his presentation, "An Anthropological Perspective on Sin, Desire, and Sexuality" during the 2015 ETS debate about Reparative Therapy. He only makes two points, so it should follow that this will be a short review. Sadly, no. There is enough to say to fill 'Part 1' and 'Part 2'.
Introduction: The cultural challenge.
For the first 10 minutes or so, Denny spoke about the challenge in his US context where there are moves to outlaw any therapy that helps people who struggle with same-sex attraction and other gender issues from a traditional standpoint. It is an important issue which Denny argues affects both Reparative Therapists and "Biblical Counsellors".
In light of this increasing pressure, it is important, says Denny, to contend for what is biblical, as opposed to what is not. Reparative Therapy, says Denny, is not. The following two points are foundational to his disagreement with Reparative Therapy.
"The Bible does not treat the absence of heterosexual desire as a problem, but possibly as a gift."
For the next 10 minutes, Denny appeals to biblical discussions of celibacy in Matthew 19:1-12 (especially vv10-12) and 1 Corinthians 7:7-9.
The Bible does treat the presence of homosexual desire as a problem.
For the last 20 minutes Denny discusses how sinful desires, not just actions, require repentance. He appeals to Matthew 5:27-28 to argue that the object of a desire determines whether the desire is sinful or not. This means that all sexual desire which does not have sex within marriage as its goal is sinful.
Denny then responds to the charge that such a view confuses temptation with sin. The argument against his view is that temptation is not sin because Jesus was tempted but did not sin. However, says Denny, Jesus' temptation was not like ours - he experienced external pressure, but internally did not respond sinfully to that pressure. It was impossible for Jesus to sin. It is all too possible for us to sin because we respond with an internal drawing toward sin.
Lastly, Denny parses temptation into trial (suffering) and enticement (a sinful way out). Once again, Jesus did not have anything inside that responded to enticement; we do. (Here he appeals to James 1:13-15).
Denny ends by saying that Reparative Therapy is not wrong because it wants to eliminate homosexual desires in people (he agrees this is good), it is wrong because Reparative Therapy aims to develop heterosexual desires in those people. This, he asserts, is at odds with biblical teaching on the potential gift of a lack of heterosexual desires. What should be the approach of those with same-sex attraction is repentance and renewal, as is the call of all Christians. There is no guarantee of complete deliverance from homosexual desires in this life, but repentance and renewal should result in real progress in holiness.
During his presentation, Denny makes the comment that debates between Church and Culture in the coming years will be anthropological. This is a point that has been made elsewhere, and in fact has been a fair description of the debate between Church and Culture for a number of years already.
The problem I see with Denny's method of addressing these debates is that his anthropology is being formed issue by cultural issue. An approach like that can't help but be re-active. A re-active formation of a theological anthropology uses an exterior framework to shape it, and so is in danger of missing important links. A pro-active formation of theological anthropology, while prompted by issues, thinks beyond the issues of the day and attempts to let the Bible's framework shape thinking.
So while it is perfectly legitimate for Denny to structure his talk around the need to identify what is worth fighting for in the current cultural context, his points are also self-consciously part of the larger question "How do we address homosexuality?" This has resulted in conclusions that seem reasonable within that limited area of anthropology, but which are in fact quite wrong-headed in a wider anthropological frame.
Checking what he says against the Bible.
So what are his points? They have been laid out already but I'll repeat them again:
1. The Bible does not treat the absence of heterosexual desire as a problem.
2. The Bible does treat the presence of homosexual desire as a problem.
It will take quite a bit to address them.
Point #1: The Bible does not treat the absence of heterosexual desire as a problem.
What does Denny mean by "problem" when he says the Bible does not treat the absence of heterosexual desire as a problem? If by problem he means, "sin", then I agree with his statement. The Bible certainly does not treat the absence of heterosexual desire (and we'll take Denny's meaning here as desiring sex with the opposite sex) as a sin. The absence of heterosexual desire may be a result of the corrupt influence of sin in the world at large, or a result of sin against the person themselves, or a result of personal sin, but in and of itself a lack of desire for copulating with anyone of the opposite sex is not a sin.
This cannot help but be comforting to people who, in their struggle against same-sex attraction, have never experienced a desire for sex with the opposite sex. And yet Denny's definition does not stop there. When Denny says the Bible does not treat absence of heterosexual desire (again, he's meaning desire for sex with the opposite sex) as a "problem", he goes on to say, "It might possibly be a gift!"
Now, to me, that is a problem.
Asexuality: not a disqualification and not a gift.
Don't get me wrong. I am very much a believer that celibacy can be a gift from God. Anyone who denies that would be a fool, considering the explicit statements about that topic in the Bible. But Denny goes further than this and attempts to shepherd the concept of asexuality into the category of celibacy. How? By advocating people flee from homosexual desires as sinful, but saying that heterosexual desires are optional.
Let me put this carefully.
I am willing to accept at face value that some people do not experience sexual desire and identify that (lack of) experience as asexuality. The Bible speaks plainly about people (men) who do not have genitalia (e.g. Isaiah 56:3b), and I see no reason why people cannot likewise be physically, emotionally, psychologically or spiritually unable to desire sexual intercourse. I am aware that not everyone sees this as a problem, but I encourage people who experience this and for whom this is a problem to read Isaiah 56 and apply the words of comfort to themselves:
For thus says the LORD: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 56:4-5 ESV)
God does not reject people because they are incapable of experiencing sexual desire. Their acceptance by God depends on Jesus alone. And yet, at the same time, I would be unwilling to call such an experience a gift, in the same way castration or physical deformity is not a gift, except in the way God can bring the beautiful and the wonderful out of any situation or circumstance. A human being may not marry in the age to come (Matthew 22:30), but in this age a whole and healed human is not asexual; they are heterosexual, even if they are celibate.
The first smuggling attempt (Matthew 19:10-12).
Denny's attempt to smuggle asexuality into celibacy begins when he opens the Bible to Matthew 19:1-12 (specifically vv10-12) and suggests that Jesus' teaching on celibacy can encompass asexuality.
Let's look at the verses 10-12 below:
The disciples said to him [Jesus], “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” (Matthew 19:10-12 ESV)
Denny - I believe rightly - recognises "this saying" that Jesus talks about as the disciples' reaction to his teaching on divorce. The disciples looked at Jesus' teaching about marriage, a person's (man's) obligations before God and the results of unrighteously divorcing a spouse and they say, in essence, "That's too hard! It's better not to marry at all!"
Now, there's no way Jesus is going to agree that the standards he's just set out for marriage and divorce are too stringent, so he's hardly going to agree with why his disciples say it is better not to marry, i.e. "If such is the case of a man with his wife...". Jesus does affirm, however, their concluding statement: "It is better not to marry".
What are we to make of this statement?
First, it does not apply to everyone, but only to those to whom it is given. It is a reasonable deduction that the giver of this saying would be God, himself.
Second, there are three general categories of people who don't marry - a) those born eunuchs, b) those made eunuchs, and c) those choosing to be eunuchs for the kingdom.
Third, of these three sub-categories, only one - the last - is voluntary. It would make sense, then, that Jesus' last comment, Let the one who is able to receive this receive it, applies to those able to choose celibacy, as opposed to those who have had it forced upon them through birth or other circumstances.
But Denny says about this:
So the ability to stand apart from marriage would not sanctify or condone same-sex desire, that's not what's at stake here. It would, however, condone the experience of those who may have a lack of desire for the conjugal bond of marriage. It would seem to put them in the category of those who have made themselves "eunuchs for the kingdom".
A eunuch for the kingdom is not someone who literally emasculates themselves for the sake of the gospel, but one who is otherwise capable of marital intercourse but who chooses to forgo that possibility. That ability might be given to them by God enabling them to overcome normative sexual desire. Or that ability might be given by God granting them an abatement of normal desire. In the latter case, of course, the abatement of such desire would not be considered a problem if God is the one causing it to happen for the sake of the kingdom, on Jesus' terms(?) [final word unclear].
Denny's logic doesn't really follow here.
A eunuch is not just someone who doesn't marry, a eunuch - both literally and figuratively - is someone who is unavailable for intercourse. The implication of Jesus' words is that if a person is unavailable for intercourse for some reason outside of their own choice, i.e. those born eunuchs or those made eunuchs, they are not going to marry. If a person chooses to forgo marriage, then yes, they are figuratively making themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of God - but they had a choice.
Therefore, if a person does not have a desire for "the conjugal bond of marriage", they are not giving up marriage for the sake of the kindgom, they just don't have the desire to get married in the first place.
Now, are there cases where a person who does not have heterosexual desires marries someone of the opposite sex? Yes, there are. But here is where we need to allow the whole Bible influence our thinking, not just the issues of the day. Biblical marriage includes sexual intercourse and the desire for sexual intercourse. And while, due to the imperfection of our world, there might be/are a variety of non-sinful marriages that do not live up to the Biblical understanding of marriage, Jesus assumes the Biblical understanding of marriage when he teaches here.
This means if someone was to decide to forgo marriage for the kindgom, and then God "grants them an abatement of normal desire", it is perfectly reasonable to allow that God has given them the gift of that abatement. But if someone doesn't have heterosexual desires in the first place, and they then decide not to marry for the kingdom, it's kind of like a guy who hasn't got any money to go to the movies telling his friends he's staying home to spend time with his family. He and his family may benefit from him staying home, but it's a lack of money that is the reason he stays at home.
So, does Jesus here teach that asexuality is a gift? No. If anything, asexuality is one of the unchosen reasons people are eunuchs. This does not mean someone who identifies as asexual cannot find wonderful blessings through being unmarried, even the same blessings as those who choose celibacy. However, to say asexuality itself is a gift from God is to confuse categories and only leads to confusion between God's good gifts and God's gracious redemption of the effects of sin.
Check out Part 2.