I was given an advanced copy (without page numbers) of this book in exchange for an honest and voluntary review on Goodreads. “Footnote” citations do not explicitly include chapter number; in actually, they are endnotes, which was somewhat aggravating, if understandable, for me. Also, I have put in boldface where I mention each chapter. Quotations are to be understood to belong to their respective chapters, unless otherwise explicitly cited.
Denny Burk and Heath Lambert wrote Transforming Homosexuality: What the Bible Says about Sexual Orientation and Change “to consider the ethics of homosexual desire, often referred to as homosexual orientation” (ch 1, “Why Do We Need This Book?”), and not on homosexual behavior, which is assumed for this book. The book is organized into two parts: The Ethics of Desires (Part 1, chs 1–3) and The Path of Transformation (Part 2, chs 4–6). In short, homosexual desire is wrong because the thing desired is itself sinful and Jesus Christ can gift his people with transformation through his transformative power (and that the Bible cares not only about ethics but about active ministry by the church).
In ch 2, “What Is Same-Sex Attraction?”, Burk & Lambert survey what they consider four broad views on Christians and homosexuality, very helpfully citing the APA’s definition of sexual orientation and representative works from each of the four approaches—namely
1. Liberal: Scripture is against homosexuality, but experience tells us otherwise,
2. Revisionist: Scripture is against homosexual excess, not homosexuality itself,
3. Neo-Traditional: chaste homosexual orientation is not necessarily sinful in itself, and
4. Traditional (the approach this book adopts): those struggling with same-sex attraction (SSA) can and must seek to mortify homosexual desire through the transformative power of Christ and his Spirit.
Burk & Lambert then go on to evaluate the three components of same-sex orientation (SSO) in the APA’s definition of sexual orientation: sexual attraction, emotional/romantic attraction, and identity. Sexual attraction, when it is disordered and out of accord with God’s intention for humanity, is therefore sinful, even if one is unable to control it. The authors discuss the Bible’s and the Church’s (Augustinian) view of humanity and sin in general, showing that we are in bondage to it and that sin extends beyond one’s external behaviors, seeing that SSA (seeing SSA and same-sex desire as synonymous, cf. note 15; and that one should not be dogmatic about it with respect to the nature vs. nurture debate on the causes of homosexuality, cf. note 18) is but a subset of sin in general.
The authors continue to discuss issues of identity and argue that sexual or erotic feeling is incompatible with a robust Christian anthropology; it is not fundamental to one’s identity. Also, there are many queer theorists, such as Hanne Blank, cited in note 29, who contest the equation of sexual orientation with human identity.
The authors now turn to the question, “Is Same-Sex Attraction Sinful?” in ch 3. It should be no surprise how the authors will answer the question. Nevertheless, to the question they turn (even if it feels like they have already answered it, at least in part). Here Burk & Lambert discuss two polarizing sides for Christians. On one side, SSO is “an unchosen, immutable attribute that has no more moral dimension to it than does skin-color or eye-color.” On the other extreme, there is the belief that SSO is always chosen and the notion that SSO even exists is “to concede too much to the sexual revolutionaries.”
Another group that does not fit neatly on this arbitrary scale is the Neo-Traditional group in ch 2, which insist that homosexual behavior is wrong but who are unsure if SSA itself is sinful. They do not want to commit the sin of Matt 23:4 and overburden their brothers and sisters in Christ by seemingly confusing mere temptation with sin. At any rate, Burk & Lambert are right to point out that the issue is about the “pre-behavioral components of sexual sin,” with the question having profound and immediately pressing application to how we invite people of SSO to Christ and how we help them walk with Christ.
The authors discuss the difference between sexual desire that is sinful and sexual desire that need not be sinful. After surveying Augustine and then Jesus on this topic, they conclude that sexual desire is proper only when it is “ordered to the covenant of marriage,” something that neither same-sex desire or adulterous heterosexual desire can claim. Burk & Lambert then go to discuss Jesus’s impeccability and his inability to sin, which is why Christians can affirm that not all temptation was sinful (or else we must conclude that Jesus sinned!) and yet affirm that “[w]e experience a level of internalization that Jesus’ impeccability never allowed.” Here the authors distinguish between the testing of temptation and temptation itself, where being tested is something external (and not sinful), and internalizing such the “testing” of temptation is itself sinful.
To apply it to those with SSO, to the extent that it includes sexual desire, “emotional/romantic attractions that brim with erotic possibility,” and constitute one’s own identity, then it is sinful. That said, such things are shared by all people and are not exclusive to those with SSO. Burk & Lambert insist that we all have a common sinful orientation “by nature and by choice.” My summary will end here, but my “brevity” (ha!) in no way detracts from the clear pastoral warmth in this chapter.
In ch 4, “Myths about Change,” Burk & Lambert talk about the necessity of both ethics and ministry (biblical knowledge is necessary but is woefully insufficient for true change), and sexual change is not impossible. Christians must listen to everyone’s testimony, both those who found it impossible to change and those who have found it possible. Other myths tackled are that change is harmful and that it requires heterosexual desire. Trading homosexual lust for heterosexual lust is not an improvement at all “What the Bible commands, therefore, is not heterosexuality, but holiness” (ch 1, emphasis mine). The final myth is that change can happen without repentance; instead, it is the only path to change.
Chapter 5 charts “A Biblical Path to Change” in line with the convictions of the authors that the Bible is not only about ethics but also about ministry and redemption over large and debilitating sins, be it suicidal despair, anxiety, or homosexuality. Nothing is too large for the Gospel. But, in line with the last myth listed in ch 4, it requires repentance and a willingness to turn to our heavenly Father in our sanctification. This chapter is intensely biblical and brimming with warm pastoral care.
The final chapter is on “How Evangelicals Can Change.” This chapter helpfully includes evangelical Christians as also needing to change in how they have (not) welcomed those struggling with SSA. Burk & Lambert wade through a false dichotomy of (bigoted) intolerance (of homosexuality and homosexual persons) and (full) tolerance (and full affirmation of not only the person but also the lifestyle) and argue for the only biblical option, to speak the truth in love. They go on to expound what humble speaking of truth in love ought to look like for Christians.
Overall, Burk & Lambert have clearly and consistently laid out their position and their concerns for the church, and their chapters have commendably answered the questions set forth in their respective chapter titles. Also, they have chosen to write concisely and succinctly, given the length of this booklet (approx. 94 pages, if the page count on my copy is representative of the final published work), in stark contrast to this review (sorry!). There are a few questions at the end of each chapter that may help foster discussion and self-reflection.
The sources cited at the end of the book are also helpful for all who wish to orient themselves to the debate on homosexuality and the Church/Bible and to be informed of the different perspectives on the issue.
Concerning the reception of this book and to whom it is addressed, I have the following to say:
To those who may align most closely with the first two categories of approaching Scripture and Homosexuality, Liberal and Revisionist, as defined by Burk & Lambert, one must not therefore be surprised by the authors’s insistence on putting their view of what Scripture teaches above anyone’s perceived experiences and thoughts. At least they are upfront about it, something I find quite helpful. If one is not prepared to engage with a clear (and winsome) exposition espousing the Traditional view, then this book is not for you. If one seeks to understand why traditional Christians believe that even homosexual orientation is sinful and/or wish to familiarize him- or herself with biblically-faithful lines of argumentation, then this book is for you.
The issue of homosexuality is a controversial and debated topic for all people who wish to claim the label Christian, and it generates much heat in social media and elsewhere. For those who wish to seek light, to seek charity and clarity and understand why many Christians believe both that homosexuality is sinful (including orientation) and that there are no other biblical alternatives (though the authors express clear sympathy to the Neo-Traditional position), this book is an excellent, well-written (brief) resource. Transforming Homosexuality is a firm but uncombative book that paints a broad and clear vision of why they view SSA/SSO as sinful and how the Church and those struggling with SSA/SSO can and ought to seek continual (if extremely difficult) growth in holiness in the grace of Christ’s transformative power. This book will be extremely helpful and clarifying if you are willing to extend charity to and humbly learn about a position clearly stated on homosexuality that many in the Western world (unfairly, in my opinion) find repugnant or bigoted. Otherwise, this book will likely be a huge disappointment to you, particularly if you do not share the convictions of the authors.
I apologize if this review is as long as the book. Given the touchy nature of this thorny topic for many, I wished to reflect as best as I could the clarity I have found in this book, at the possible expense of concision. Even if one should disagree with the authors and/or the “Traditional” perspective on homosexuality, it is generally best to interact fairly with some of the best in this position (such as these authors) so that this important discussion can move forward in respect, charity, and integrity.