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"An Anthropological Perspective on Sin, Desire, and Sexuality" - A Review.

Category: I'm Registering an Opinion Published: Wednesday, 11 May 2016 Written by The Kiwi

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I have followed Denny Burk's blog for...must be at least ten years. 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 a lot to respond to.

The Talk.

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.

First point:

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.

Second point:

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 it's 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).

Conclusion:

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.

Overall Impressions.

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.

 

...his anthropology is being formed issue by cultural issue.

 

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.

 

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.

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.

 

...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.

 

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.

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)

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!

 

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.

 

To take sin-formed brokenness and rename it a gift from God is a serious pastoral mis-step...

 

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. 

 

...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.

 

Heterosexuality is an wholistic manner of relating to those of the opposite gender...and to your own 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 wholistically.

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.

And it's those desires that we will look at in the next post.

 

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