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.

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Am I a Sinner Saved by Grace?

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Public Discourse just published an article in which I make a major defense of Spiritual Friendship and the Revoice Conference. In this post, I want to focus on a point that Albert Mohler—president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College—made in his recent briefing on the Revoice Conference:

But finally, as we try our best to think compassionately and clearly about these issues, I think we have to turn to a text such as First Corinthians chapter 6, verse 11, where Paul writes: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Now in First Corinthians 6 as in Romans chapter 1, Paul mentions specific sins, but by implication, he is indicting the entire human race. But speaking of our identity as sinners saved by grace, he says, “Such were some of you,” and then uses the language of being washed, sanctified, justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. It can’t be an accident, and we must not miss the power of that verb tense: “such were some of you.”

That’s not just a message for those who’ve organized and will be attending the Revoice Conference. That’s a word for every single Christian all the time.

I am puzzled.

The claim that we must speak of all sins and struggles with sin in the past tense is a surprising position for the leading Calvinist in the Southern Baptist Convention to take. In “Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?” [pdf], Mohler’s protégé Denny 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.

There’s no past tense to struggles with sin there, unless you’re in Heaven—in which case, I assume you are not listening to Mohler’s briefings or reading my blog: you have a better Source of instruction readily available.

The claim is also puzzling, because this insistence on the past tense comes in what Mohler says is a discussion of “our identity as sinners saved by grace.” But if we are not sinners, but only were sinners, then it makes no sense to speak of “sinner” as part of our present identity.

It’s important to pay attention to the last two sentences. Mohler’s argument here goes far deeper than just saying that he thinks it would be wiser for me to say, “I am a Christian who struggles with same-sex attraction,” rather than to say, “I’m a celibate gay Christian.” He’s making a much larger claim about the verb tenses which “every single Christian all the time” should use for talking about their struggles with temptation and sin.

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A Happy Convergence

Sometimes it really does seem that Providence arranges remarkable and helpful convergences.

This week, just after I’d read these hope-giving lines from Eve Tushnet’s reflections on her role in the whole “gay Catholic” conversation and the upcoming Revoice conference —

We’re constantly being told that same-sex sexual desire is disordered, which I accept, as I accept all that is taught by Holy Mother Church. But when people (or ducks) try to tell you how to order your desires, they always try to get you to keep the expression of desire the same, but change the object. This is the “become straight” option, if “option” is the word I want. There is another way for desire to become ordered: same object, different expression. People who long for same-sex love and intimacy should maybe be encouraged to learn how to do that, since it is good, and holy, and beautiful.

— I happened to get an email from a friend that pointed me to a letter written by the great Evangelical Anglican preacher Charles Simeon (1759-1836) to his friend Mary Elliott. This letter, it seemed to me, dovetailed beautifully with Eve’s blog post. Here is an excerpt from the letter, written the year before Simeon’s death:

In your letter of this morning you express a fear that you may love your dear Mother or a friend too much; and I am anxious to correct that idea without loss of time; first, because it is a source of disquiet to the conscience, and next because it is an error which almost universally prevails in the Church of God. That we may show our love improperly I readily grant; but that we can love one another too much I utterly deny, provided only it be in subserviency to the love of God. I think I have explained to you that word fervently (‘see that ye love one another with a pure Heart’): its precise meaning is intensely. No two words in any two languages more exactly agree than ‘intensely’ does with the original. If then our love be with a pure heart, this alone were sufficient to establish the point. . . .

Christianity does not encourage apathy; it is to regulate, not to eradicate, our affections. It admits of their full operation, but tempers them as to their measure and sanctifies them to the Lord. I have often been comforted by knowing that Lazarus and his sisters were peculiarly beloved of their Lord, and that John was an object of His more than ordinary attachment; and from hence you will see that, if I have written this for your instruction, I have had an eye also to my own vindication, if I should appear to err in the discharge of the most delightful of all duties.

If you’ve never been told by your fellow Christians that the personal object of your desire—not just what you might want to do sinfully with that person, but rather the personal object him- or herself—is wrong for you to have, period, then this might not resonate with you as much as it does with me. But for those of us who have been told that, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways—for those of us who have been told that the way to godliness is by removing ourselves altogether from the kinds of friendships in which we might be tempted—it comes as healing balm when you’re told instead, “Christianity… is to regulate, not to eradicate, our affections.”

It’s not a sin for men to love men, or women to love women. On the contrary.

Spiritual Friendship: Learning to Desire Love

Conference Announcement!

On July 26, 2018 from 1-5pm, Spiritual Friendship will host a pre-conference, immediately preceding the Revoice Conference in St. Louis. Featuring Ron Belgau, Matthew Lee Anderson, Johanna Finegan, and Br. Joe Trout, OP, the pre-conference will provide a theological foundation for thinking about desire, the fall, and the sanctification of human love.

All Revoice attendees must RSVP in order to attend the preconference.

Memorial Presbyterian

Description

How can gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians love and experience love if God created human beings male and female, and His plan for sexual intimacy is only properly fulfilled in the union of husband and wife in marriage? This conference will provide a theological foundation to answer this question by fleshing out what the Bible and Christian tradition have to say about:

  • Human desire in light of the fall and the process of sanctification;
  • How beauty can draw us toward truth;
  • The role of ascesis in purifying desire;
  • Friendship and its counterfeits; and
  • How authentically Christian love—in marriage and family life, in friendship, and in Christian community—is outward focused, not turned in on itself.

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The Greatest Commandment

Jesus and Pharisees Cropped

James Tissot, “The Pharisees Question Jesus,” from the Brooklyn Museum collection. Purchased by Public Subscription.

In both the book of Romans and the book of Galatians, Paul offers some insight into the role of the Law in the life of a Christian. For example, in Romans he says,

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10, ESV)

Similarly, in Galatians, he says,

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-14, ESV).

In the context of sexual ethics, these verses have long been used to argue for a revisionist view recognizing same-sex marriage as legitimate. The idea is that if we can’t see any way that affirming same-sex marriage is an affront to love of one’s neighbor, it must not be wrong. Much of the conservative response has been to try to show how same-sex marriage fails to love one’s neighbor. Continue reading

Finding Love Again

For a long time, partly at our friend Eve Tushnet’s suggestion, I’ve wanted to try to write about how and why I’ve formed such deep and lasting friendships with married couples. This is, I gather, somewhat unusual for people like me who are both gay and celibate. Strange or not, though, it’s been one of the most significant parts of my efforts to embrace life and health in celibacy. So here’s my best effort (so I think) to try to tell that story.

I do want to say here what I probably should have said more clearly in the essay itself: this is not the story of Gay Christian Celibacy, capital-g, capital-c, capital-c, and if this doesn’t match what you feel or know, I certainly don’t think that indicates any failure or deficiency on your part.

This is just my story — or a slice of my story. But I’m offering it in the hope that it can inspire at least some of us to be more forthcoming about the pains and joys unique to our specific stories of going through life without spouses of our own.

On Evangelical Bigotry

I’ve obscured a couple of identifying details in the interest of discretion, but here is a true story.

Just before I came out in my mid-twenties, I had preached several sermons at a church where some close friends of mine attended. Those sermons had been warmly received, and many people who heard them encouraged me to continue seeking to discern whether I had a calling to pastoral ministry.

Then I came out.

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New Resource Published

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Students arrive on campus with various boxes of belongings to unpack, some heavy, some tidy, some more valuable, some more private. For many students, two of these boxes could be labeled ‘My Faith’ and ‘My Sexuality’–and these two can be among the most cumbersome to handle. How to balance them without having to set one down? How to hold them both closely, but still move forward to settle in with new friends in a new environment? How to keep from dropping one or the other, spilling its embarrassing contents for all to see?

This is what we say in our Preface about what we hope the reader will take away from this book:

We hope that readers will listen to the range of voices and experiences of these students. They are not all saying one thing, and so we have to listen carefully. We hope that Christians will also be more intentional as they engage the people represented in this project. We hope that Christian institutions will support a comprehensive and more nuanced view of personhood, including our sexuality and sexual identity, and that our hopes to build one another up will be reflected in the quality of our programming and in our interpersonal relationships.

This book presents findings from the first two years of a longitudinal study of sexual minority students at Christian colleges and universities. We provide information on their experience of sexual identity development, campus climate, psychological distress, emotional well-being, and religiosity.

The book is now available for order from InterVarsity Press Academic.

Celibacy: Tragedy or Deep Comedy?

I started the process of coming out as gay and celibate just over a year ago when I came out to one of my best friends. It was the last Saturday in Lent which, ironically, also happened to be April Fool’s Day. Tragedy and comedy mixed together as Lent with all of its tragic-like focus on sin, its darkness, its cross bearing is mingled with April Fools’ Day, there to make a joke of it all. I’ve thought a lot about that day over the past year and I’ve come to think that there is something theologically significant about these themes of celibacy, tragedy, and comedy. Is celibacy merely a tragic existence that is to be pitied? Or is it a deep comedy, to borrow Peter Leithart’s phrase, in which there is ultimately a happy ending? A happy ending that is not simply a restoration of something lost, but is a surprise that moves us beyond anything that we could ever have been imagined?[1]

A few days after I came out to my friend he sent to me a link to “Treaty,” a dark, haunting song by Leonard Cohen. In the email, he wrote: “Kevin, I’ve wanted to show you this song for several months, but I’ve been afraid to. It seems so fitting for you, and for me. Now, it feels even more fitting than before.”

I have to confess, I loved the song (and still do). After he shared it with me I listened to it over and over and over again. The prospect of coming out had left me gutted, feeling empty. I binged on the song, letting it poke and prod my already festering wound, wanting to feel something, anything. I listened to it at night, alone in a dark house. I listened to it for what I am sure was more than half of the five hour drive to visit my friend the following weekend.

I wish there was a treaty we could sign
I do not care who takes this bloody hill
I’m angry and I’m tired all the time
I wish there was a treaty
I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine

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On “Church Discipline”

Whether it’s the Catholic Eve Tushnet writing about “bad Catholics” or the Baptist Nick Roen writing about when Christians are obligated to leave a church that rejects certain Scriptural teachings, we here at SF have circled around the theme of what Protestants often call “church discipline”—i.e., when and why and how we may be asked to refrain from receiving Communion because of an unwillingness to repent.

For those of you who want to keep thinking about this topic, I’ve got a long post on it—and particularly how it relates to gay people and sexual sin—up today over at The Living Church magazine’s Covenant blog. Any thoughts you’d want to leave in the comment box would be most welcome!