An Honest Question for Denny Burk and His Calvinist Friends

Denny Burk

In response to a tweet calling my recent Public Discourse article defending Spiritual Friendship and Revoice “the single most helpful, most thought provoking, and most clear thing” from the Spiritual Friendship perspective, Denny Burk tweeted in reply,

I agree. And I would add that Belgau has many other thoughtful articles on these themes on the Spiritual Friendship website as does Wesley Hill. There are still important differences between us, but I appreciate the thoughtful engagement here.

In light of recent controversies, I genuinely appreciate this acknowledgement, even though differences remain.

In an effort to explore at least one dimension of those remaining differences in a—hopefully!—thoughtful and charitable way, I want to ask Denny—and his associates like Albert Mohler, Owen Strachan, and Colin Smothers—a question about how Calvinists should view the sanctification of friendship in this life, in cases of ongoing struggle with the desire for homosexual sex.

In “Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?” [pdf] Burk wrote:

What then are we to make of the emotional bonds gay people experience for persons of the same sex? Can those attractions be sanctified? Yes, they can. They can be sanctified when they are shorn of the elements that otherwise make them sinful. When sexual possibility and intention are removed through repentance and faith toward God, there can exist the real bonds of holy, God-honoring same-sex friendship. But those bonds can only be cultivated when we recognize that the desire for sinful sex can never be the foundation for holy friendships. Holy friendships are the fruit of chastity in both thought and deed.

I substantially agree with this. The year before Burk published “Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?” I concluded an essay on how to understand what I meant by “gay” in this way:

I end by re-affirming that I do not think that “gay” describes any deep fact about who I am in Christ. But because of the culture we all grow up in, it is an important part of how my experiences were organized growing up. If I want to help others sort out their experiences, and point them towards sanctification, I think it can be helpful to talk about the way that desires that I understood as “gay” growing up are, in fact, sanctifiable. This is not because same-sex lust is sanctifiable: that must always be repented of and mortified. It is rather because not all desire for deep intimacy with the same sex is lust. At least in some cases, the desire for intimacy can, when pursued in obedience to Christ, become a friendship that is not primarily a source of temptation, but rather a source of encouragement in sanctification. [Emphasis in original.]

And in “Is Being Gay Sanctifiable?” which Burk cited in the paragraph above, Wesley Hill wrote:

So, notice a distinction here. Butterfield, Burk, and others seem to be saying that I need to die to, repent of, renounce, etc. every last aspect of “same-sex attraction” or “being gay,” and I think I agree with them almost entirely as long as we’re using their definitions of those terms. For them, I think, “same-sex attraction” or “being gay” or “homosexuality” is something that is defined by its culmination in same-sex genital expression. But many of us (though perhaps not all?) here at Spiritual Friendship are using the terms differently. We’re understanding “same-sex attraction” or “being gay” as broader, more inclusive categories that can’t be reduced to the behavior, or even the desire for, gay sex. Just as chaste chivalry, to take just one example, can be an expression of heterosexuality, so we’re suggesting that chaste friendship (or a number of other ways of expressing love) can be an expression of homosexuality. Having gay sex is one way of being gay, but, if we’re taking our cues from the Christian tradition, it need not (must not) be the definitive way.

My main worry with some of the “renunciation” and “surrender” and “death to self” language that Christians use in relation to homosexuality is that, for most people, it will end up implying that we believe all aspects of “being gay” are sinful. This is a devastating burden for many same-sex attracted Christians to bear, since it then leaves them trying to parse, ever more minutely and obsessively, how much of their desires for friendship, intimacy, companionship, community, etc. are a result of their sexual orientation. Then, if they think that those desires are a result of their same-sex attraction, they’re left feeling that they must repent of things that, surely, God intends for blessing and good in their lives—and things that have a rich history of commendation and sanctification in the history of the Church. [Emphasis in original.]

We have not claimed that the desire for sinful sex can be the foundation for holy friendships. We have agreed that the desire for sinful sexual acts must be mortified.

I could complain that Burk and other critics, by failing to acknowledge the distinctions we have drawn here, have misrepresented our position, and falsely claimed that we had an overly positive view of sexual temptation. But having clarified the point, I don’t want to dwell on it. I want to focus on the question of sanctification in friendship.

I am not entirely sure what Burk means when he says that “sexual possibility and intention” must be removed; it seems like a surprising position for a Calvinist to take regarding sanctification in this life (I discussed this recently in reference to Mohler’s Revoice briefing). In “Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?” Burk quoted John Calvin:

We hold that there is always sin in the saints, until they are freed from their mortal frame, because depraved concupiscence resides in their flesh, and is at variance with rectitude.

Calvin continued, citing Augustine:

Augustine himself does not always refrain from using the name of sin, as when he says, “Paul gives the name of sin to that carnal concupiscence from which all sins arise. This in regard to the saints loses its dominion in this world, and is destroyed in heaven.” In these words he admits that believers, in so far as they are liable to carnal concupiscence, are chargeable with sin.

Burk claims that in later life, Augustine came to hold the view that temptation is sin. This simple statement, however, blurs an important distinction which Augustine held to the end of his life (I’ve also mentioned this in other posts, but it’s important). In City of God, Book XXII, Chapter 23—written near the end of his life—Augustine wrote:

For though sometimes more violent and at other times slacker, yet without intermission does the flesh lust against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh, so that we cannot do the things we would (Galatians 5:17), and extirpate all lust, but can only refuse consent to it, as God gives us ability.

He continued:

But yet we are to know this, that however valorously we resist our vices, and however successful we are in overcoming them, yet as long as we are in this body we have always reason to say to God, Forgive us our debts (Matthew 6:12). But in that kingdom where we shall dwell forever, clothed in immortal bodies, we shall no longer have either conflicts or debts—as indeed we should not have had at any time or in any condition, had our nature continued upright as it was created.

Whatever we want to say about the sinfulness of desire, it seems critical to stress the difference between a desire felt and a desire consented to. Particularly on Calvin and Augustine’s view, we cannot avoid this war with the flesh in this life; but for Augustine, at least, the key to our growth in virtue lies in our refusal to consent to these desires. This crucial Augustinian point never comes through in Burk’s exegesis. Rather, he says things which could be taken to mean that consenting to the lusts of our flesh adds nothing to the sinfulness already present in the temptation:

As Christians, our moral assessment of homosexuality does not depend upon it being chosen. All sinful desire springs spontaneously from our nature, but its unchosenness does not make it any less sinful. [Emphasis added]

For my purposes, however, this is a quibble. Both Augustine and Calvin agree that we will not overcome either temptation or sin in this life. So it would seem to me that from a Calvinist/Augustinian perspective, it would be no surprise if any Spiritual Friendship writer continued to struggle—to a greater or lesser degree—with the desire for homosexual sin throughout life, and only finally being purged of these desires in the resurrection.

We have not said that these desire should be the basis of true friendship—indeed, we have said that these desires must be mortified so that other, potentially sanctifiable, forms of same-sex love can flourish. See, for example, “True and False Friendship” or “Love, Covenant, and Friendship.”

Nothing in what Wesley Hill or I have written pre-supposes that the kind of friendship we are talking about will be between two same-sex attracted men. He has written about his friendship with a married couple, and I have written about friendship with straight friends both in my coming out story in college and in an article contrasting a later, straight friendship with an earlier, more romantic friendship.

Ultimately, holy, God-honoring friendship requires inner transformation of the heart; there is little chance of overt sexual activity with a straight friend, but that doesn’t, in itself, prevent lust in the heart. And two men who struggle with sexual attraction to the same sex can, if they mortify their desires for sexual sin in both thought and action, also cultivate a holy and God-honoring friendship. The key to this growth in sanctification is to, with God’s help, always resist lust, both in the heart and in external relationships.

More importantly, the key is to have friendships which are based on shared faith and other, non-sexual common interests. In every case where I have written about my own experiences with friendship, including the most immature and romantic of my early friendships, I have made clear that there was much more than sexual or romantic attraction going on in these relationships; once I became convinced that the Bible forbids gay sex and gay lust, I continued to cultivate the real goods in my friendships, while resisting temptations to lust.

Despite the quote from “Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?” that I began with, Burk gives us little insight into how Christians who are trying to mortify their desires for homosexual sex should go about cultivating the kind of sanctified friendship he describes.

Burk might reply that in that paragraph, he was talking about sanctified friendship; that no friendship is fully sanctified in this life; and that the quoted paragraph tried to point us in a direction, or set a mark to aim at, rather than describing a standard we can reasonably expect to attain and apply in the near future. Or at least this seems like what a pastor with an Augustinian or Calvinist view of the Christian’s lifelong struggle with sin ought to say.

But however useful it may be to have a picture of sanctified friendship, it is even more useful to know how to go about sanctifying friendship. If I want to get to Louisville, a map that shows the route from where I am to Louisville is worth much more than a good picture of what Louisville itself looks like.

According to Burk, by God’s grace, some Christians who struggle with desires for sinful same-sex sexual activity can learn to cultivate holy, God-honoring same-sex friendships. Given his Augustinian/Calvinist view of indwelling sin, their progress toward sanctification will—I assume?—coexist with ongoing struggle with temptation and sin.

So these are my questions for Burk (and Mohler, and others who share their views): if a man or woman who is striving for this kind of holy friendship but continuing to struggle with homosexual desires approaches a pastor, what sort of advice should he offer? How would he help this person to discern where he or she was being drawn toward real goods, and where they were blinded by fallen desire? (Augustine, not surprisingly, is quite worried about the deceptiveness of fallen desires.) What particularities of the situation should he pay attention to, and how should those considerations inform his pastoral care?


5 thoughts on “An Honest Question for Denny Burk and His Calvinist Friends

  1. I tend to think that you have the more perspicacious presentation of theological reasoning and arguments regarding these questions than either Burk or Mohler, and even Augustine. I admit that there may be subtleties in these matters that I haven’t begun to engage, but being unwilling to rely on Augustine for my understanding of our common sinful nature and engagement with sin isn’t necessarily sinful is it?

  2. I’ve been bothered by the CBMW approach to these things for a while. They are generally willing to embrace Calvin’s distinction between concupiscence and sin in all areas except same-sex attraction. I find that position difficult to sustain biblically and theologically. Never mind that research indicates that very few people experience exclusive attraction to the opposite sex.

    In addition, their definition of “desire” strikes me as a bit concocted. It operates on the Freudian assumption that all desires are necessarily reducible to sexual desires. It also ignores the fact that people are often poor judges of what their desires actually are, and that desire always has a social component.

    In that vein, I’d also like Burk to explain what underlies same-sex friendship. When I was growing up in the SBC and PCA, I noticed that most men in those subcultures are desperately lonely. Not one of my closest male friends is a Christian, although several of us grew up in the church. The deep-seated homophobia of these subcultures almost makes any kind of genuine same-sex friendship impossible. After all, how does one develop friendships with people to whom you’re not attracted?

    • Would you document this please? “…research indicates that very few people experience exclusive attraction to the opposite sex.” It seems unlikely.

      Has anyone suggested anything like the idea that “desire” only: “operates on the Freudian assumption that all desires are necessarily reducible to sexual desires.” Where do they say that? Your comments following suggest little engagement with the author(s) or their thinking.

      Are you a Christian?

  3. Pingback: How to Evade the Real Issues | Spiritual Friendship

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