Kiwiandanemu.org the 2nd

Bits, back-ups and miscellaneous.

"An Anthropological Perspective on Sin, Desire, and Sexuality" - A Review (2 out of 2).

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' (here) and now 'Part 2'.

The second smuggling attempt (1 Corinthians 7:7-9).

Denny then moves on to Paul and Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 7, where according to Denny, Paul explicitly links celibacy to "sexual inclination". I agree there is a link, but I disagree with how Denny explains the link.

Let's look at the part of the passage Denny highlights.

I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:7-9 ESV)

Denny says of these verses:

It's clear from the context that the gift [of celibacy] is not merely the state of being unmarried. The gift relates to one's experience of sexual desire and we know that from verses 8 and 9 where Paul said that it is good for the unmarried to stay unmarried and then he says this: but if they do not have self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn....

....Richard Hays says it this way, "Those who feel the compulsion of sexual desire should marry". By implication then, those who do not experience that compulsion may be regarded as having the gift. That is why in their commentary Ciampa and Rosner define the gift as "the capacity to concentrate on the work of the gospel without being distracted by sexual desires". So a person who is lacking heterosexual desire would certainly fall into the category of persons that I think are being referred to here in 1 Corinthians 7.

Once again, Denny imports more than is warranted into these three verses.

I am completely willing to acknowledge that different people have different levels of sexual desire, and that this will be helpful in determining whether they marry or remain unmarried. And let's acknowledge that verse 36 mentions the strength of a man's passions to indicate whether he should marry his betrothed or not.

And yet, in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul emphasises not the innate strength of a person's heterosexual desires, but rather the person's ability to control them. Note the words in bold in verses 7-9 and verses 36-38 quoted below:

I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:7-9 ESV)

And:

If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin. But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better. (1 Corinthians 7:36-38 ESV)

We see in these verses that Paul links celibacy with the ability control sexual desires. And even when we read verse 36 in light of verse 37, the phrase "if his passions are strong" is placed in contrast with having "desire under control". So we can legitimately ask whether the person with strong passions in verse 36 is someone who has not been given the ability to control his passions rather than just someone whose sexual appetite is so innately strong it's uncontrollable.

Now, I wouldn't go so far as to say that strength of sexual desires play no part - I believe they do. But the emphasis on self-control in 1 Corinthians 7 suggests two things:

a. It is not the sexual desires themselves that are the main issue when it comes to celibacy, but the person's ability to control the desires they have.

b. The people Paul envisages taking up the call to celibacy have heterosexual desires to control!

This fits in perfectly with our consideration of Matthew 19:10-12 above where the person with the gift of celibacy - now seen as including the gift of self-control - chooses to refrain from marriage for the Kingdom. A person without any heterosexual desire, in biblical understanding, will also refrain from marriage, but not because of the kingdom. They will not marry because they do not have the sexual desires understood to be integral to a marriage. And while their lack of heterosexual desire may result in beauty and blessing through the grace of God, it is not in itself a gift from God.

What of Denny's conclusion?

This is where Denny ends his first point, i.e. that the Bible does not treat the absence of heterosexual desire as a problem, and draws the following conclusion:

Well here's the bottom line. Jesus and Paul are telling us the same thing.... The lack of heterosexual desire can be construed as a gift and when that is true we would do well to teach Christians that this experience is a vocation to be pursued, not a problem to be overcome as in Reparative Therapy...

and again, at the end of the whole talk:

In conclusion, the primary aim of Reparative Therapy is not merely the elimination of homosexual attractions, which we would agree with, but the development of heterosexual attractions. But these aims don't correspond one-to-one with the aims of Christian sanctification as it is defined in Scripture. All of us are being transformed into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). The goal of that transformation for same-sex attracted people is not heterosexuality but holiness. The Bible does not treat the absence of heterosexual desires as a problem necessarily, but rather, potentially, as a gift. Thus we ought to be encouraging Christians that the absence of such desires may be a vocation to be pursued, not a disease to be corrected through psycho-therapy.

Let me emphasise what Denny is saying here:, Denny says a lack of heterosexual desire can be construed as a gift; it is not necessarily treated as a problem in the Bible, but potentially as a gift; and when that is true, because the absence of such desires only may be a vocation, we should tell them not to pursue the gift of celibacy.

Do you see the lack of certainty there?

Quite apart from the fact that the Bible passages Denny appeals to need to have "a lack of heterosexual desire" read into them to support his argument, if a lack of heterosexual desires only may be a gift, how does a person with homosexual desires tell whether their lack of heterosexual desires are a gift or a problem? If a person with homosexual desires develops heterosexual desires, does that mean their lack was a problem that's now been solved? And if a person struggling with homosexual desires doesn't develop heterosexual desires, does that mean their lack of heterosexual desires is a gift?

Convenient, but not very robust.

But frankly, this just doesn't make sense. The truth is the passages Denny appeals to speak of the gift of celibacy as a choice made by people who already have heterosexual desires they can control. While it is true to say that a lack of heterosexual desire is not a sin, it is not God's biblical design for human beings. To take sin-formed brokenness and rename it a gift from God is a serious pastoral mis-step, even if the motivations are good.

An Unbiblical Anthropology.

But so what if a person struggling with homosexual desires thinks their lack of heterosexual desires are a gift instead of a problem? If they follow Denny's advice, they will (hopefully) get all the benefits of someone who truly does have the gift of celibacy, won't they? (see 1 Corinthians 7:25-35 to find out what Paul says those benefits are). So they're good whichever way you look at it, right?

Well, in the short term, perhaps. But in order to hold to that position you have to make some major assumptions about anthropology that do not line up with the Bible.

For a start:

a. Denny's argument requires us to draw an unhelpful solid line between homosexual desires and hetereosexual desires.

According to Denny's talk, you may be struggling with ravenous homosexual desire, but if that sexual desire does not cross over into heterosexuality you may well have the gift of celibacy!

That is ridiculous. A person struggling with homosexual desires is not someone with a low to non-existent libido. The Bible teaches that a homosexual person's sexual appetite is a real sexual appetite but it is a sexual appetite that is misdirected.

Why is that? It is because sinful desires are malfunctioning godly desires.

This means that the same underlying needs and motivations that make up sexual desire in any person are part of the - albeit sinful - sexual desire of those struggling with homosexual desire. Therefore, to say that someone who has homosexual desires but no heterosexual desires has the gift of celibacy (at least as Denny describes it, i.e. lack of (hetero)sexual desire) is trying to draw a line between homosexual desires and heterosexual desires that cannot be drawn.

b. Denny's argument requires that God's original design for human beings includes the possibility of asexuality.

Let me say this again: Denny does not actually use the word "asexual" in his presentation, but his argument is that the gift of celibacy covers people who lack heterosexual desires. And if those people struggle with homosexual desires, those desires are to be put to death (see the quote from his conclusion above). What is God's design for them, then, if not asexuality?

The biblical truth of the matter is that God created humanity as gendered beings. An essential part of gender is the potential for a sexual relationship between genders. When the Bible talks about those unable to have sexual intercourse (as opposed to those who choose not to marry), they are words of comfort for their loss, and promises of gracious redemption despite their situation (Isaiah 56:3-5).

It is this truer understanding of anthropology that gives greater comfort. To tell a person struggling with homosexual desires that their lack of heterosexual desires is a good gift from God closes the door on potential healing and sanctification. On the other hand, telling them that their lack of heterosexual desires is a result of sin (theirs or others or sin-in-the-world) and that, if there is no change in that area, God can use their lack of heterosexual desire to give them the greater blessing of the celibate Christian as described in 1 Corinthians 7:25-35 is both true and encouraging, and it leaves the door open for healing in that area.

c. Denny's argument presents a truncated view of heterosexuality.

According to Denny's argument here, heterosexuality seems to stand or fall on a person desiring to have sex with a person of the opposite gender.

Heterosexuality is much more than that.

Heterosexuality is an wholistic manner of relating to those of the opposite gender, whether your spouse, child, neighbour, work colleague or stranger, and to your own gender. There is a God-given understanding that there is an "other" within the human family. This manifests itself when those untrained in political correctness realise the person they thought was a woman is actually a man, and vice versa. Not only do people experience shock, they change the way they relate to that person, purely on the basis of gender.

The many conscious and unconscious cultural and trans-cultural means of relating to the opposite sex contribute to sexual attraction and desire. A culture's understanding of manhood and womanhood is not necessarily correct - sin affects every facet of our lives, even cultural understandings - but that does not negate the truth that humans are to be heterosexual in the way they relate to each other as male and female.

To limit heterosexuality purely to sexual attraction is to say someone can speak French only when they are fluent, or are humans only when they are adults, or are doctors only when they specialise. There is far more to it than that, as people successfully coming out of homosexuality can testify.

(Let me note that in discussions around the push for fluid-to-no gender, Denny does utilise the content of the broader definition of heterosexuality that I argue for here, but whether he would retroactively apply that content to this issue, I do not know.)

So what about Reparative Therapy?

Denny states that Reparative Therapy intends to develop heterosexual attractions (i.e. sexual attractions toward the opposite gender). This is disputed by Robert Gagnon, but what is true is that Reparative Therapy does not share Denny's understanding of anthropology.

Reparative Therapy (at least as presented by Robert Gagnon and used in the program I have experience in) does teach that all humans are created heterosexual, not asexual or homosexual. That is not to minimise the often complex realities behind asexuality and homosexuality, but rather acknowledges the (biblical) truth that under that complexity is a heterosexual bottom line.

Reparative Therapy (at least as presented by Robert Gagnon and used in the program I have experience in) does work with people who struggle with homosexuality to help them live in line with their physical gender. It does not necessitate developing sexual attractions for the opposite gender, though it may occur.

Reparative Therapy (at least in the program I have experience in) does not limit heterosexuality to sexual attraction, but defines it far wider and holistically.

Denny could well rewrite his talk and reframe his opposition to Reparative Therapy to say he doesn't agree with the anthropology presented by Reparative Therapy. That, I believe, would be a much more accurate description of his position. But I would argue, as I have above, that Reparative Therapy - despite still needing careful testing by Christians - is working with an anthropology that is more biblical than that presented by Denny in his talk, and is working toward goals more biblical than merely stopping having sex (or desires for sex) with the wrong gender.

Check out Part 1.