Can we have an argument about being a ‘gay Christian’? That is the question which I have been wondering since the storm of Baptist and Presbyterian furor descended upon Revoice. The conference is an attempt by a wide variety of such Christians and their supporters to explore what fidelity to the Christian teaching on sexuality and marriage demands, and what the possibilities for being a gay Christian might be.
Controversy about the conference was inevitable—but the organizers also imprudently invited such criticisms by expanding its scope beyond questions immediately raised by the gay and lesbian experiences. The questions involved in this discussion require a non-Scriptural vocabulary to properly assess them. But not every philosophical discourse is equal to the task: Judith Butler’s reign as philosopher-queen should come to an end (with apologies to my dear friend Nate Collins, the organizer of Revoice and author of this very good book on the subject). The T and Q in the endless list of identity-designators raise independent questions and require diverging answers to the L, G or even B: collapsing them all into one conference obscures these differences, to its detriment.
Saying that here deprives me of the joy of saying so for the first time at the conference itself, which I had planned on doing. However, I can now see one benefit to including forms of speaking and thinking about these issues that I find uncongenial to clarifying the Christian witness: doing so underscores that this is still an argument that is being had, a question under consideration. From the standpoint of the conference’s critics, of course, that is simply the problem: the attempt to raise a question about these things itself seems to be indicative of a moral failing, a capitulation to modernity. The effort by Revoice to thread an impossibly small needle on these questions is nothing if not foolish. After all, in the midst of our great cultural conflagration about gay marriage and the grand apostasy of our churches, who has time for nuance? That is the unserious objection to the effort, in my view. The main reason to be skeptical of parsing hairs of the ‘gay Christian identity’ is that doing so may itself be simply a vain exercise in self-deception. This is a real possibility, which no responsible member of the discussion can ignore.
Yet what if the answer is that the effort to find a space for ‘gay Christians’ is not an exercise in rationalization? After all, the stated commitments of the individuals involved are unhesitating and unequivocating about the badness of same-sex sexual acts and the grave moral seriousness, at least, of the complex of desires and affections which make such acts seem reasonable. I cannot say everyone who will be present at Revoice adopts the same stance on the moral licitness of every feature of such desires and affections: the Spiritual Friendship writers, for instance, seem to come to distinct answers on it. Yet we are broadly united in thinking that morally parsing our sexual orientations and identities is possible, which seems to separate us from our conservative critics. The question is whether there can be an argument about such matters, and whether it will be settled by reasons rather than circumvented through vociferous denunciations of heresy.
If one starts from the standpoint that Christians are locked in a grand cultural struggle over gay marriage and anthropology, the idea that a conference like Revoice is a sign of self-rationalization and compromise makes a great deal of sense. Yet that is by and large not the standpoint of the organizers—and the difference matters. For those in the gay Christian community, how Christians have argued, taught, and spoken about these questions over the past thirty years has created an enormous amount of unnecessary collateral damage. Those who experience same-sex sexual desires have been left without a useful vocabulary to understand their own experience, except one that frames it in exclusively and comprehensively negative terms. This makes the qualifications by conservatives that their critiques of same-sex sexual desire are applicable to every form of desire sound like special pleading. The young man addicted to porn is allowed within his repentance the freedom to affirm the fundamental goodness of what he in fact desires (namely, marriage). On the most prominent account on offer right now, though, those who are gay are not allowed such an opportunity. Given this context, it seems reasonable to try—try—to extricate the theological and pastoral questions that such experiences raise from the grand cultural struggle, and to take them up anew on their own terms.
Adopting the culture-war starting point, though, also means that anyone who attempts to unsettle certain conservative ways of thinking and speaking is invariably on a ‘trajectory’ toward heterodoxy. I suspect such a stance arises from a number of sources. For one, there is a presumption that adopting contemporary terminology (‘gay’) to describe an experience commits one to the intellectual framework that produced it. This is buttressed (or motivated) by a consistent pattern of uncharitable readings, as the ‘Neo-Traditionalists’ explicit statements to the contrary are set aside on the basis of the prior judgment they are on a trajectory and so must not really mean that. The background assumption about our culture war thus inform the criticisms (such as they are), reducing those gay Christians involved to types and ignoring the diverse features of their lives that call into question the inevitability of their apostasy.
Most importantly, such a starting point cannot acknowledge that the work of ‘Neo-traditionalists’ like Wesley Hill has born fruit—that it has kept gay Christians within orthodox churches, when they may have had every reason to leave otherwise. Having concluded the ‘Neo-Traditionalist’ position is heretical, critics are only allowed by their commitments to treat those who do apostatize as paradigmatic instances of the view they criticize—while ignoring the many stories that could be used against their own approaches. It is not only the illicit desire for distinctions that can destroy charity, then: the conclusion there is no argument, and so no morally relevant distinctions to be drawn, can as well.
For my money, dividing up the complex and cluster of experiences that go into sexual desires and orientations is essential for forming people in charity—for sanctification. Again, searching for distinctions might be an effort to ‘rationalize sin.’ But must it be? (This uses, I note, a distinction—does it matter?) Sometimes we deploy distinctions retrospectively: we attempt to exonerate ourselves after the fact by saying we didn’t intend to do wrong even if we desired the money we stole. But we also use distinctions prospectively, in trying to answer what we should do. Arguing that drawing distinctions is always an act of self-rationalization seems to entail that clear thinking is always on the side of sin, that the ability to discriminate between [x] and [y] within a moral context is intrinsically an instrument of the devil. That moral attitude would be extraordinary, in the least.
Identifying the relevant moral distinctions prior to the heat of battle is sound preparation for it. Responsible agents distinguish between intentions, desires, and other moral phenomena not so they can revel in embracing the risks of wrongdoing, but so they can know where such risks lie and the point at which those risks transform into moral wrongs. We are sometimes charged with acting in morally hazardous contexts, where the likelihood of wrongdoing seems to beset us at every turn. The mother charged with finding the right path for the right reasons when both her child’s life and her own hang in the balance has few options that seem right—and many that would clearly be wrong. Rejecting the use of distinctions to prepare or form her conscience in such a matter would be ‘pastoral malpractice,’ a favorite term of Burk’s. To fail to use distinctions to alleviate her conscience of wrongdoing puts her in a position where she might be more encumbered by a false sense of guilt than she should be: she might believe she has done wrong when she hasn’t. Matters are more complicated than this case allows in sexual ethics: but it is worth thinking through how the criticisms of the neo-traditionalists’ use of moral distinctions regarding temptation, desire, and guilt translates into other moral contexts. My own intuition is: not well.
I am belaboring the point regarding distinctions to show what is at stake in this debate. In contrasting his view with the ‘neo-traditionalists’ of Spiritual Friendship and elsewhere, Burk suggests that “Christians have never tried to help sinners by providing the false assurance that sin is not as bad as they have believed.” That is true: but it is also a distortion of what I take to be the ‘neo-traditionalists’ view on these matters. The point of drawing the relevant distinctions is not to assure people that their sin is ‘not as bad’ as they believed, but to help them discern what their sin is—and is not. It is possible to distort God’s grace by using it defend a cheap leniency, which obscures the comprehensive and incomprehensible weight of His holiness. Yet it is also possible to distort it by discovering sins where they are not, so that the extent of His forgiveness is falsely magnified. Christians are called to confess the sins they have done and left undone—and only those, and no more than those. The “unfounded fears that there is sin where there is none” that marks scrupulosity is still a vice, one which the use of moral distinctions is essential to avoiding.
I am convinced, then, that there is still room to have an argument about being a ‘gay Christian’—and I intend to undertake one dimension of it here. My interest in keeping the questions being raised by the ‘neo-traditionalists’ open is connected to my substantive views of the question, of course. Our posture toward the rhetorical and dialectical environment is invariably determined by our substantive commitments on the question, and vice versa. However, my position at least has the virtue of consistency (or perhaps the vice, depending on what one thinks of my view). My early(ish) substantive views on sexual desire were republished earlier this week here on this website. I think they help clarify why I critiqued the Nashville Statement, and why I also objected to Wesley Hill and Alan Jacobs’s attempts to untether sexual ethics from the central grammar of the faith.
As with morally hazardous situations, so with moral doctrines: there are so many ways of going wrong on these questions, and very few ways of going right. I am convinced that there is a progressive apostasy on sexuality, which is marked by the affirmation of gay marriage. However, such a flagrant departure from the witness of Scripture and tradition at least has the virtue of being obvious. I have become convinced there is a ‘conservative’ stance on these questions that is more subtle in its capitulation to subChristian ways of thinking about sex and marriage, and more pernicious for being subtle. Its representative figures are Denny Burk, Owen Strachan, and Heath Lambert—all Southern Baptists, which I suspect is not a coincidence. As Burk has published the most extensively on the question, I treat his view in what follows as representative. My contention is that it has the advantage of coming to many of the correct conclusions—but does so for the wrong reasons. Its presuppositions and its emphases contain seeds that can only lead to poisonous fruit, unless exposed and rooted out.
What Sexual Desire is—And is Not
Let’s begin by considering how Burk analyzes three terms that have been crucial for the discussion—same-sex attraction, sexual orientation, and sexual desire. In his book Transforming Homosexuality (with Heath Lambert), Burk sets his account against what he calls the ‘Neo-traditionalism’ of Wesley Hill and others. On Hill’s account, the desires for “friendship, intimacy, companionship, [and] community” are dimensions of ‘being gay’ that do not merit renunciation or repudiation, but are worthy of commendation and affirmation. For Wes, such goods are inextricably intertwined with his ‘sexuality.’ As I understand the account, the sexual attractions he experiences are the most energetic forms of more fundamental desires and longings, such that it is possible to “harness and guide its energies in the direction of sexually abstinent, yet intimate, friendship…”
Note the shifts in terminology and the ambiguities at work here. Hill wishes to speak about ‘being gay’ as a bundle concept, which includes dimensions and desires that any Christian would affirm—and of which ‘sexuality’ is a component. But what does sexuality mean, precisely? Does it mean ‘attractions’ to persons of the same sex? And are those attractions sexual? What does that mean, though? Does it mean they’re attracted to the sex of the person, or they’re attracted in that they want to engage in a sexual act? Is it possible to have an ‘attraction’ to a sexed person, in which their sex is part of the basis for the attraction, without that attraction being sexual in the sense in which it is an attraction that forms a desire for some sexual act? Could there be a non-sexual brotherly kiss of affection—for which the sex of the recipient is inextricable from the ardency and intensity of the brotherly affection that accompanies it?
None of these questions, though, arise on Burk’s reading of Hill’s account. Instead, he slides from the claim that Hill “wants to find spiritual benefits to same-sex attraction” to “[s]exual attraction to a person of the same-sex is not a platform for spiritual fruit. It is an occasion for repentance.” It’s important to see what this claim is: it is not an objection in any sense that supplies a reason to think Hill’s approach is false, so much as a contradiction. I take ‘neo-traditionalists’ to be interested in an ‘untangling maneuver’: we want to distinguish the terminology of ‘gay’ and from the moral content of sexual desires, to help individuals who do experience same-sex sexual attractions to discover, name, and love the goods within their lives as God sees them. I’ll not speak for others in this discussion, but such a stance seems plausible even while preserving the absoluteness of the prohibition on same-sex sex acts and the intentions, plans, and choices for them. What neo-traditionalists wish to tear asunder, Burk cannot imagine apart.
A similar process is at work in Burk’s repeated insistence that we adopt the APA’s understanding of ‘sexual orientation’ as the paradigm view in the discussion. On Burk’s account, the “sexual attraction component is the foundation for everything else in the definition.” But that is just what neo-traditionalists deny. The disordered sexual desires commonly associated with being ‘gay’ are severable from other dimensions of the experience, dimensions that still involve and entangle the sexuality of those with a same-sex sexual orientation. What might that mean? An individual might have a set of involuntary, habitual dispositions that makes them vulnerable or susceptible to same-sex sexual desires arising, but which are themselves not sexual in the relevant sense. One such disposition might be toward noticing members of the male sex in a way that one does not notice members of the female sex. Another might be an ease in seeing and being drawn to the virtues and goods of one’s own sex, in a way that one struggles to see as clearly in the other. Such a disposition stands beneath the emergence of any kind of desire. Does such noticing constitute a ‘sexual attraction’? In the sense that one is noticing a sexed body, clearly. Yet that is rarely the relevant meaning. A woman who has a proclivity to notice men over women may be said to have an attraction to them, but the appellation ‘sexual’ introduces an interest in reciprocal communication of a bodily nature. On this account, then, one can have a same-sex orientation that is constituted by real attractions, but which are not (yet) sexual in the relevant moral sense.
The lack of precision in Burk’s account is a feature and not a bug—but it leads to especially incoherent conclusions when Burk does attempt to account for what a ‘sexual’ desire is. He writes in Transforming Homosexuality, “When modern people talk about same-sex attraction, they intend a kind of attraction that includes sexual possibility between persons of the same sex….It is same-sex sexual desire that is the constitutive element.” On Burk’s account, the “bonds of affection between straight friends do not contain within them sexual possibility.” And: “To the degree that same-sex bonds are defined by sexual possibility and intention, they are sinful.” Such an account means that attractions can be sanctified in one way: through excision. They “can be sanctified when they are shorn of the element that otherwise make them sinful.”
Here we see Burk move hastily from a same-sex ‘attraction’ to a same-sex sexual attraction to a same-sex sexual desire. They are indistinguishable on his view. Each is marked by what Burk calls the “sexual possibility.” It is not at all clear, though, what precisely this names in anyone’s experience. Presumably the use of ‘sexual’ here references some kind of act ordered toward the arousal of sexual organs. Put that way, though, every relationship we have has that possibility. It would be interesting to know which set of relationships Burk thinks have transcended the realm of sexuality, so that the decisions, desires, and dispositions that would lead toward sexual arousal are no longer a possibility. The deep affection of an adult brother for his sister must be bounded and pervaded by chastity, precisely because—however unlikely, and however repugnant—the involuntary and even unwelcome emergence of sexual desires in such a realm is not unknown. The duties of chastity and its handmaid modesty require remaining alive toward such a possibility. They require a fearful reverence within one’s love for another which does not fixate upon the emergence of such possibilities, but recognizes their power.
It’s easy to see why there is so much talking at cross-purposes within this discussion. For one, Burk’s insistence that we adopt the APA’s definition of ‘sexual orientation’ and make the ‘sexual’ dimension determinative is simply one that I reject. Identifying what constitutes desire, sexual desire, an orientation, and an identity is exceedingly difficult and crucially important—too difficult and important to be left to such an organization. These moral questions and terminology are the province of the Church, primarily, whose privilege and duty it is to teach the world the true nature and moral significance of these phenomena.
Of course, if such distinctions are irrelevant prima facie, then the effort to make and examine them will appear like un-biblical logic chopping. Yet Burk’s attempt to explain what Scripture says and doesn’t say about such matters has to offer some kind of extra-biblical analysis: hence his use of ‘sexual possibility’ to try to identify what constitutes a sexual desire. The argument at least tracks the early Church’s tussles about Christology in at least this respect, then: it cannot be settled through blunt assertions of Scriptural verses. Extra-Scriptural concepts and analyses are essential to understand what’s happening within Scripture’s teachings about desires: it is imperative, then, that we find good ones. Burk’s are not.
Needs, Debts, and Desires in Marriage and Celibacy
For Burk, though, the argument turns on what Scripture says. Here I find myself in happy agreement with him: if Burk’s reading of the New Testament’s witness on matters of sex and marriage is right, then there is no room for debate. Here is another point of agreement: Burk makes clear in Transforming Homosexuality that sexual ethics should be governed by and ordered toward the covenant of marriage, rather than sexuality per se. Again, I concur. The meaning and significance of human sexuality is not read off directly from our sexual organs, but is embedded within the already moralized cluster of goods and norms that make up and are derived from the covenant of marriage. Because of this, every non-marital form of life has some reference to marriage: not using our sexual organs as sexual organs outside of marriage is an inviolable rule for Burk. So far so good.
However, Burk’s understanding of the basis for marriage’s sexual life and of celibacy works against that framework, so much so that it comes near to reducing marriage to a manifestation of an irrepressible sexual desire. There is a Freudianism at work in Burk’s account of sex, in other words, which corrodes his ethics. That is an ironic charge, I grant, given the frequency with which his associates have charged those who want to use ‘gay’ as capitulating to ‘modern’ understandings of sexuality. But consider Burk’s treatment of 1 Corinthians 7. In his book on sex, Burk examines Paul’s exhortation to spouses to give what they ‘owe’ to one other (7:2). As Burk writes, Paul “invokes a term that is used elsewhere to refer to financial debt, but he now applies it to what husbands and wives owe one another in the bedroom.” He goes on: “Each spouse has a sexual debt to pay, and each spouse is expected to pay up. The debt varies from couple to couple, but in general the debt is defined by the needs of one’s spouse” (emphasis mine). To reinforce the point, Burk cites the New Living Translation’s(!) paraphrase of the verse, “‘The husband should fulfill his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband’s needs.”
Having framed the sexual relationship between spouses in 1 Corinthians 7 around needs, Burk extends the reading to those whom might be called to celibacy. “For Paul, the gift of celibacy consisted in ‘a genuine gift of freedom from sexual need’” (quoting Fee). While Burk’s 2015 ETS lecture thankfully admits that the ‘gift’ of celibacy in Matthew 19 might include the overcoming of ‘ordinary sexual desire,’ it is doubtlessly a minor theme in his work relative to his insistence that celibacy is linked to an absence of sexual desire. On his understanding of 1 Corinthians 7:8-9, the gift of celibacy is “defined in terms of sexual desire” (again, his 2015 lecture). If such desire is ‘intense,’ then one should pursue marriage—but if it’s in check, then one may pursue celibacy. Such an account means Paul and Jesus are singing the same song: The “lack of heterosexual desire can be construed as a gift.”
Framing sexual desires as ‘needs’ matters pastorally, insofar as it allows Burk to argue that the sanctification of same-sex sexual desires means not replacing them with different-sex desires, but expunging them altogether. To his credit, Burk does hold forth the possibility of gay individuals marrying others of the opposite sex. The importance of this should not be downplayed. Those gay and lesbian individuals who enter ‘mixed orientation marriages’ are the premier threat to the Freudian reduction of marriage to a container for sexual desire that pervades so many of our churches. For Burk, though, such individuals presumably cannot do so while retaining a ‘self-conception’ or identity as a gay or same-sex attracted person—which undermines the extraordinary threat that mixed-orientation marriages are to our society’s presuppositions about sex and marriage.
The problems with Burk’s views of marriage are perhaps clearest through his negative and individualistic depiction of celibacy. Burk repeatedly suggests that those called to celibacy have been “given the ability to set aside the desire for normal marital relations.” Gay individuals who have a “total lack of desire” either for the companionship for marriage or a “total lack of physical desire to fulfill the sexual obligations required in marriage” have the option of pursuing celibacy. Marriage is clearly the default here, and celibacy the ‘exception’—never mind that for Paul in 1 Corinthians, marriage very clearly seems to be a concession while celibacy is the norm. Burk’s discussion of celibacy in his book on sex (chapter 8) is striking for how little it says about the communal dimensions of a celibate vocation, about the centrality of friendship to the Christian life, or about the ecclesiastical context in which a celibate life becomes intelligible. The nearest Burk comes to a positive dimension for singleness is in accentuating the freedom celibate Christians have with their time and emotional life to invest in others. Otherwise, celibacy is a negation of marriage: one enters it because one lacks the desire for marriage. This focus on the negative dimensions of singleness bleeds into his depiction of “chastity” for single people, which amounts to a trio of prohibitions: don’t have premarital sex, don’t masturbate, and don’t look at porn. Those are sound, biblical commands. But there is no sense in which chastity is a virtue, which has a positive, affirmative dimension within it.
The impression Burk’s account leaves, then, is that those who are called to vocational celibacy don’t desire marriage or don’t desire sexual activity. Instead, though, celibacy is founded upon a command from the Lord to live as an eschatological sign of what we shall all one day be, regardless of what other desires we might have. If Burk’s view were right, what happens if those who are called to celibacy wake up having such desires? Presumably, they should marry: but that precludes the possibility that a vocation exists and endures despite variations in desires, and that those who are called to celibacy may during seasons of their life experience very intense aspirations for marriage as temptations which would pull them from their vocations. Burk would doubtlessly tell the person within the vocation of marriage that their desires to abandon their wife are temptations that should be repented of: but if the vocation of marriage governs desires that way, why not also celibacy?
More importantly, though, Burk’s reduction of the sexual relationship and the ‘debts’ spouses owe to one another’s needs is—there’s no other way to say this—corrosive to an unremittingly Christian understanding of sex and the marriage covenant. It is hard to stress just how devastating a Freudian intrusion into the witness of the New Testament ‘needs’ represent, and how seriously it distorts and undermines the virtue of chastity. It is an utterly foreign imposition on to Paul’s thought in 1 Corinthians 7. The ancient world knew of framing sexuality as a matter of ‘need’: Plato’s Symposium undertakes an investigation into whether sexual desires are a matter of a necessity, or whether there is a plane beyond that which sex might be founded upon. But Paul’s language is economic. Why? Why use debts to describe marital sexual relationships, rather than frame them as responses to the other’s needs?
In the first place, it is important to note that even in 1 Corinthians 6 Paul provides the grounds for untethering sexual desire from having any kind of position of ‘need’—even while he simultaneously fills it with eschatological significance. As I have argued previously, Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 6 specifically associates food with our temporal, mortal condition: it is something we need to remain in time. Without it, we die. Yet in the eschaton, that link is severed: “food is for the stomach, and the stomach is for food, and God will destroy them both.” That is not to say there will be no food in the eschaton: rather, it is to say that the body will be so animated by the Spirit’s presence it will not need the extrinsic source of life food represents. But sex, well, sex is for the Lord. And the Lord will raise the person up on the last day in their sexed body, marked by their chastity (or lack thereof). The announcement of the Gospel sets everyone, married or not, free from being possessed by ‘sexual needs,’ precisely by establishing the person on a plane of freedom beyond and outside the impulses which drive them.
Even if this interpretation does not hold up, though, a moment’s reflection indicates that debts and needs are radically distinct concepts. A debt is formed when one party receives a loan. It presupposes a prior relationship, which these days is often understood in contractual terms but for Paul took the form of a covenant. A debt is a relationship of justice established between two parties: when one person owes a debt to another, they owe it to them—and not to the whole world. It is, in that sense, inherently bilateral. Yet a need has a very different form: when one person has a need, who fills it is a secondary consideration. The starving man wants food; how they come by it matters less. In that sense, a need is inherently egoistic: what matters when one is in need is filling one’s own deprived state, rather than the other person. Moreover, a covenant is formed through joint action: it is something both parties forge together. As such, the debt that is owed is not strictly or solely founded upon the other person’s claim on us: rather, it is founded upon our own prior act of making the covenant. In this way, the terminology of ‘debt’ is unintelligible without considering both parties, simultaneously. But the terminology of ‘need’ sets up an inherently antagonistic relationship inside the marriage: it exists without any prior reference to the mutual action of establishing a covenant. It might be voluntarily constrained by a covenant, but inasmuch as it is a ‘need’ it will constantly press against its limits. No wonder, then, that the terminology of ‘need’ is so commonly deployed to justify undertaking extra-marital sex: once we claim a need to have sex, it will possess us and make us slaves it itself as we are possessed by our need for food.
The marital debt, then, is not founded upon the individual’s needs within the marriage, or even the ‘need’ of the marriage unit: it is a response to the gift of the other to oneself in love in entering the covenant of marriage, which is prior to and structures any form of sexual life. It is for this reason, I think, that Paul specifically does not say that the individual in the marriage should assert their right to claim their debt, but that such debts should be given. Paul’s witness as an apostle is instructive at this very point. Just two chapters over, in 1 Corinthians 9, he notes that he has the authority to claim resources from the Corinthians in compensation for his service. Yet it is specifically that authority which he will not employ, so that the Gospel might be magnified (v. 12, 15ff). As God loveth an unforced, cheerful giver of their money, so also within the marriage.
That Paul disentangles sex from food, and associates it with money, suggests that it is for the Christian on a very distinct plane from the kind of Freudian need that haunts the halls of evangelical New Testament interpretation—and it explains why the early Christians could be stingy with their bodies, but promiscuous with their money. The ethic at work in both is one of giving and receiving. The debts we incur from one another in marriage are welcome precisely because they reveal that we are recipients of the largesse and charity of those around us; only from such a standpoint will the heart be free, properly free, to give of itself.
Burk notes this, thankfully, observing that the text is “not about coercing one’s spouse,” but about “husbands and wives giving themselves freely to one another.” Yet Burk’s stance that needs animate the marital debt undercuts this affirmation. The two are radically incommensurate, and in Burk’s thought the ‘need’ paradigm clearly has the upper hand. Remember, again, that the Burk/Fee account suggests that the gift of celibacy consists “in ‘a genuine gift of freedom from sexual need.’” Burk’s functional reduction of marriage to the presence of ‘sexual need’ and sexual desire explains why immediately after he describes the marital relationship as one of ‘self-giving’ he proposes that “with limited exceptions, spouses are always to make themselves available to each other sexually,” (emphasis mine), and that while there may be times when spouses don’t want to have sex “that is not the point.” Indeed. The point on Burk’s view is to serve one another through meeting the purported ‘needs’ of one’s spouse.
Of course, what constitutes ‘permanent availability’ within a marriage has changed significantly since the advent of contraception—a practice that Burk endorses. The combination of ‘needs’ and contraceptive use combine to transfigure chastity through destroying the environmental conditions in which the virtue is naturally (and therefore gracefully) engendered. Burk observes, rightly, that Paul suggests couple’s should only abstain from marital sex. But what for Paul is an admonition to not abstain too long should be for us an admonition to abstain for a short season, so as to prove within our marriages that we have the continence required to establish the gift of our sexuality to our spouse as a gift. Offering one’s body as a gift to one’s spouse in freedom depends upon the prior recognition that one’s body is a gift to be offered. But God’s gift of the body to us comes within limits: our liberty to alter it can only consign us to unfreedom. Burk clearly believes this: his frequent objections to trans-gender surgery are (rightly) founded upon such an outlook. Yet for the male and female to unite themselves in freedom, they must recognize and delight in the pre-existing gift of their own reproductive powers and the inherently procreative form of the sexual act. God has given us the form in which chastity takes marital shape: the entire artifice of bodily life impels us to pursue it through imposing upon us naturally short seasons of abstinence, unless we renounce them through the artifice of contraception so we can fulfill our ‘sexual needs.’ Burk thinks that it is enough for marriages to stand “squarely against the spirit of the age” by retaining a general openness to children, despite taking hormones specifically designed to prevent them. How this inherent contradiction can be explained, I have yet to hear. If one is worried about the bifurcation of the personal and the biological, of the will from the body—as one should be—it is impossible to denounce doing so with any meaningful moral authority while preserving the rupture for the sake of those married couples in our pews.
The reintroduction of children, though, into the purview of consideration does bring to mind one common scenario where a couple might jointly decide to undertake sexual intercourse, despite neither or one of them particularly desiring to do so—namely, when they have previously decided together that they wish to have a child. Any couple who has worked through infertility for any length of time knows what kind of burden such hopes place on the inner life of a marriage, including its sexual life. Such considerations are, of course, nowhere noted in Burk’s approach: the emphasis falls squarely on the ‘sexual needs,’ rather than the interest in having a child. We should ask why not, and why such realities do not come to the fore more frequently in evangelical sexual ethics. Is it possible our minds have been so shaped by contraception that our claims to be ‘open’ to children despite using the pill are actually a rationalizing self-deception?
To see how far the Freudian reduction of marriage to an outlet for sexual needs has pervaded evangelicalism, though, consider whether it is possible for a couple to be married without ever undertaking sexual intercourse. Some might allow those who are physically incapable of the act to marry. But what of ordinary, able-bodied individuals who have decided to unite with each other in marriage while abstaining, permanently, from conjugal unions? The possibility is almost unfathomable to most evangelicals, of course. Yet that is how the church described the Mother and Father of Our Lord for at least 1500 years. The doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity was not there to function as a bulwark against the reduction of marriage to a sexual outlet—yet it does function as such a bulwark, such that to deny it while permitting contraception and adopting a marital framework of sexual needs is to remove practically every barrier to unchastity we could have.
The rejoinder will doubtlessly come that I sound like a Roman Catholic: yet I believe I have said nothing here that Luther, Zwingli or John Wesley could not endorse. All of them opposed contraception; all of them affirmed the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. Demanding adherence to the Reformation doctrine of concupiscence, as Burk does, is understandable—but it is an astonishing act of special pleading if we demand that continuity so that we can show the sinfulness of gay Christians while we are willing to revise those Reformational ethical stances and doctrines that directly touch our own marital and sexual lives. At the very least, Burk’s rejection of the possibility of marriage without sex calls into question which view on offer is truly ‘modern’: the neo-traditionalist claim to antiquity seems far more compelling than Burk’s.
Truly Tempted and Tried
Burk’s lack of clarity about what constitutes a sexual desire governs his reading of the relevant passages about the moral salience of desires and temptations in the New Testament. Consider his understanding of Matthew 5:27-28, which reads: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.” On Burk’s reading, allowing the purpose clause (“to lust for her”) to govern the moral analysis, so that culpability is attached to intentions and not the desire, is a “false conclusion.” Instead, Jesus’s connects the prohibition on adultery to the prohibition on coveting. Because the “tenth commandment prohibits not merely intentional desire for adultery, but all desire for adultery,” regardless of whether it is voluntary or not, Jesus does too. The “sinfulness of a desire is determined solely by its conformity or lack of conformity to the law of God.”
But this is an exegetical parlor trick: Burk doesn’t explain the purpose clause of Matthew 5, so much as explain it away. One wonders why Jesus saw fit to include it, since Burk has shown it to be superfluous. As Robert Gagnon noted in their discussion at ETS, though, translating the phrase “with desire” is a “bad translation.” One need only keep reading Matthew’s gospel to find out why. In Matthew 6:1, a mere 20 verses away, Jesus exhorts us to “beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” The Greek construction is identical to 5:28. Yet Burk’s reading asks us to believe Matthew uses it in a way that is irrelevant to the meaning in the first instance, while it governs the meaning of the sentence immediately after. (Or are we supposed to read the second verse as suggesting that we are not to practice righteousness while being seen by others?) Burk already grants that Jesus is doing constructive exegesis of the Decalogue in Matthew 5:27-28, creating an amalgam of two verses. But why not also allow that Jesus’s exegetical interpretation of the law introduces distinctions in the nature and grounds of moral culpability?
These sorts of distinctions, though, don’t matter on Burk’s account. There is a flattening effect to his view: all that counts is whether the desire is ‘sinful.’ If it is, ‘repentance’ is necessary. Even if this framework is right, it seems plausible to wonder whether on his view the desire is sinful in the same way that intentionally creating the conditions for the desire is sinful, or actually choosing to engage in adultery is sinful. Burk at one point contends that repenting of such desires means “confessing that this sin—like all others—is sinful.” (86) But what’s the force of this ‘like all others’? Does it mean equivalently bad as all others? Is there anything like a meaningful moral distinction between what one intends and what one does, and between what one does and what one desires? And does that change the quality of the repentance at work in our moral lives? If not, then on what basis do we discriminate between true repentance and false? If the lex talionis means in a sense the punishment should fit the crime, and the law of Christ means the scope of forgiveness fits the crime, shouldn’t the nature of our repentance fit the crime as well? But then, are we free to repent with anything like gradations, to view ‘sinful’ desires as less sinful than actually committing morally bad acts?
This pattern of overlooking crucial aspects of the relevant texts structures Burk’s understanding of temptation, as well. Burk does think there is a distinction between temptation and sin: Jesus was “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin,” as Hebrews 4:15 says. However, Burk thinks that we are often “guilty of projecting our own sinful experiences back onto Jesus,” and that we should not make “our sinful experience of temptation the paradigm for understanding Jesus’ sinless experience of temptation.” While I have no quarrel with Burk’s understanding of Hebrews 4:15, he then goes on to suggest that Jesus “had no desires that predisposed him to sin.” Jesus’ impeccability, his perfect sinlessness, means that “it was not possible for him to sin.” Our experience of temptation, however, is distilled in James 1:13-15. As verse 14 puts it, each is “tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own desire” (emphasis Burk’s). Burk follows John Owen in distinguishing between a temptation that arises from “outside of our desire,” which Jesus’s were, and one that is “caused by our own sinful desires.” James 1:13-15 ties the temptation to “the sinner’s inner inclination.” As the moral content of the desire is determined by its object, ‘desire’ is not “neutral anywhere in the text.” Burk contends that it is the desire “that ‘lures’ and ‘entices,’” which indicates that it is “directed toward evil” and itself sinful. As a result, such illicit desire “inevitably gives birth to sin because it is sin.”
There’s a lot happening here, but much hangs on whether James’s use of ‘desire’ in accordance with temptation is tied exclusively to its object. While Burk elsewhere allows that desires might become ‘sinful’ based on their intensity, he here brackets those possibilities and focuses exclusively upon the end that one desires. Yet this is, again, a highly contrived reading of the text (as Gagnon argued in a devastating series of criticisms of Burk’s account). Burk’s emphasis on the object of the agent’s desire obscures the claim that each is “tempted when…carried away and enticed” by their desire. That one is tempted when ‘carried away’ clearly seems to indicate a kind of intensity to the desire, which ‘gives birth’ to sinful actions not by having a sinful object but by sweeping the agent into a morally bad action based on their lack of self-control. Even if we grant Burk’s distinction between the internal or external grounds of temptation, James’s concern is actually broader than Burk makes it out to be. Burk’s overwhelming focus on the object of desire as the grounds for its wrongness obscures the possibility that one could be sinfully ‘swept away’ by an internal desire for a morally worthwhile and permissible object. Burk acknowledges that desires might be wrong based on their intensity in a footnote—yet his concern to ensure we depict same-sex sexual desires as pervasively ‘sinful’ leads him to misconstrue a passage that very clearly seems to be about the intensity of a desire.
This misreading governs Burk’s understanding of Christ’s temptation as well. While he is right that Christ’s temptation is not ours, he nowhere in his published writings on this issue has acknowledged that in the Garden Christ specifically asks the Father to remove the burden of the cross from Him, even if He chooses to do the Father’s will anyway. The lacuna is striking, given the centrality of the episode to our understanding of how Jesus was ‘tempted and tried.’ But it is also inevitable given Burk’s broader commitments: Burk has no category for a human temptation that arises from within that is not sinful. Burk’s contention that Jesus had “no desires that predisposed Him to sin” is founded upon an inability to see how a desire for a good object might on its own “predispose” one to sin. Hence Burk’s insistence that Christ’s temptations were all “external,” in that they came to Him. Yet one wonders what principle or desire was within Jesus that allowed the ‘external’ appearance of a thing to come to him as a temptation? In the Garden, Christ seems to demonstrate a desire, to the point that He is recorded as petitioning the Father on its basis. If such an expression does not come from within Jesus—if it is only an ‘external’ temptation, or no temptation at all—then Jesus’s humanity disappears in favor of a docetic Christology, which would be an exceptionally ironic turn given the pervasive docetism beneath the affirmation of gay marriage. (Burk has suggested that Adam and Eve first sinned in the garden when the desire arose within them for the apple—on that understanding, if Christ’s prayer is actually expressive of a desire, then Christ would have sinned. Therefore, for Burk, either it is not a desire or it is an act. No wonder this is a problem passage for his account.)
Christ’s temptation in the Garden, though, seems to involve both desire’s object and intensity. Jesus wrestles with the desire in such a way that it seems peculiarly intense, at least if the blood he sweats anguish has anything to do with His anguish. But note that the object of his desire is, in fact, an intrinsically good one. There is nothing wrong or bad with desiring to not undergo the suffering and death required to be the Savior of the world—unless, that is, one is the Savior of the world. Given the peculiarities of Christ’s vocation and His position within God’s command, not undertaking the work of the cross would have been morally bad for Him (not to mention damning for us!). Christ may have “never desired something his Father had forbidden,” as Burk suggests. But he seems to desire to not do something his Father commands. Christ’s conflict in the garden is one between fidelity to the Father and His vocation as the Son on the one side, and the created goods that make up His earthly life on the other. Those created, human goods clearly involve a natural disposition to avoid suffering and pain.
Burk’s understanding of the exclusively ‘external’ basis of Christ’s temptation, however, can account for none of this. It eviscerates any significance to his human action, through an assertion that the impossibility of his sinning includes any of the human desires that might lead him away from his divinely ordained calling. The ‘impossibility’ of sin that governs Christ’s life is known only a posteriori, after the fulness of the disclosure of His deity within the cross and resurrection. Jesus’s sinlessness depends upon His Godhead. But as Paul Dafydd Jones writes, “To say that Christ ‘could not sin’ is to say that, within the time and space of God’s prevenient action, Christ humanly imposed sinlessness upon himself” (emphasis mine). That He ‘could not sin’ designates “both that Jesus was ‘constrained’ by God’s elective grace and that he enacted, humanly, an intention to correspond to, act upon and complete God’s determination of his being.” It is within the human conditions of desire for creaturely goods that conflict with his vocation that such a decision takes its form.
Burk’s caution against reading our experiences of temptation into Christ’s is an important one to make. But that is not the only direction the analogy can go. The question about the moral status of our own desires is partially about what Christ’s distinct and irrepeatable temptation means for us. Our temptation is not Christ’s. But Christ’s temptation is and can be ours, through the gift of His Holy Spirit. Sinlessness within temptation is precisely what the Christian is offered, because it is what Christ’s humanity secures as part of our salvation.
Yet that means that we can put a question to our temptations and the desires that they latch on to, namely, whether they are indicators of our fallenness or opportunities to prove our sanctification—or both. The perfection of Christ’s human life through his temptation by created goods includes and represents our own temptations to evils. We are free to meet even those non-voluntary desires with renunciation and not repentance, precisely because Christ’s experience reveals to us that not all temptations arise from and within our own sin. Christ’s temptation announces in practice the moral salience of the distinction between an intention and a desire, which Christ had himself proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount.
Christ’s temptation allows our experience of desire to be a temptation, then, rather than a determination of our being or person. But that is not to say that desires are somehow exempt from moral scrutiny, much less that they are “morally benign,” “neutral,” or other descriptions Burk misattributes to the ‘neo-Traditionalist’ understanding of desires. Every desire we have is extremely morally significant—including the desires we have for good objects. Because we have access to Christ’s temptation as part of His life, we are permitted to let the question of what we desire within our disordered, impure lives to be a real question. That Christ’s temptation is for us, that it can be ours, allows us to recognize the sin within our own moments of temptation and even failure as an ‘alien principle,’ to detach our selves and our identities from it—as Paul does in Romans 7:20. Such a detachment does not mean desires are exempt from moral scrutiny: rather, it frees us for a truthful account about such desires, such that we are able to say we are inclined toward sin in this way but not that. None of this is available on Burk’s stunted account of these matters. Were his approach to be consistently enacted it would therefore consign people to a life of Christian immaturity.
The Moral Atmosphere of Orthodoxy
In his famous description of the “thrilling romance of Orthodoxy,” G.K. Chesterton suggests the early church found an “equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses.” She “swerved to the left and right,” leaving behind an Arianism that would make Christianity too worldly before repudiating an “orientalism” that would make it too unworldly. “It is easy to be a heretic,” Chesterton goes on, as it is “easy to let the age have its head.” After all, there are an “infinity of angles at which one falls,” but “only one at which one stands.” The whirling adventure of the emergence of orthodoxy required saying ‘no’ to distortions on every side, so that they might preserve an undiluted ‘Yes’ to the strange paradoxes of Christ’s life and witness.
Such a situation is, I think, our own: it is possible to go wrong on matters of sex and marriage in ways besides affirming the licitness of same-sex sexual acts and desires. Indeed, it is possible to allow the spectacular transgressions our society’s broken anthropology has generated to make us inattentive to the same fundamental attitudes and dispositions present within our own midst, subtle and quiet though they might be. I have half wondered whether that is partly the point of the chaos all about us, namely, to fill us all with the self-righteous satisfaction of denouncing obvious wrongs while ignoring the many ways our own communities have imbibed the spirit of our age.
On questions of faith and doctrine, the routes we take to our moral conclusions are as important as the conclusions themselves. The premises that we accept within the arguments we make take root within our communities, expanding and spreading throughout the soil of our lives together. They may not bear fruit quickly, and their corrosive impact will be difficult to notice as long as what happens on the surface seems tolerably well. But there is a wrong way to come to the right conclusions. If allowed to linger, the fruit such a way produces will over time be revealed as no more wholesome than that which is obviously rotten around us. This is why the question of contraception matters so much: any denunciation of the ‘modern’ sexual ethic that does not address its most respectable, pervasive form in our churches will not have the confidence that can only come from consistency. My own work, published again earlier this week, failed abysmally in this respect. It is unconscionable how little I said in those chapters about the pervasive significance of procreation. I can only say that I regret the omission, repent earnestly of it—and have proved my repentance by writing a Ph.D. dissertation on the subject.
Burk and I have this much in common: we both think the arguments matter for the very lifeblood and health of our churches. So it has always been with orthodoxy. In the paragraph preceding Chesterton’s famous description, he writes that the “monstrous wars about small points of theology” may have been “only a matter of an inch.” But “an inch is everything when you are balancing.” If “some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness.” Yet while many of the critics of Spiritual Friendship and the ‘neo-Traditionalists’ are willing to allow the use of extremely fine-grained distinctions in order to preserve orthodoxy on, say, Trinitarian matters, they deny their use on questions of morality. Such attempts are met with charges of rationalizing or excusing sin, rather than being seen and understood for what they are: attempts to animate true and right confessions of what has been done and left undone, confessions that include affirmations of the failure to recognize goods within desires that are otherwise sinful and disordered. (It is worth considering why, when criticisms were made of the actual Trinitarian orthodoxy of some of the leading figures in their theological circles, the same group of Baptist critics were among the first to plead for charity toward the accused.)
In fact, Burk seems to think that the attempt to offer fine-grained distinctions between the moral quality of desires and of actions impinges upon the Gospel’s work. “We must repent of the desires that lead to behavior,” he writes, because the “extent to which we disconnect homosexual desires from homosexual behavior is the same extent to which we will engage in mere behavior modification.” “Authentic Christianity,” he writes elsewhere, “results in people becoming obedient from the heart.” So indeed it does—but it does so through helping them grasp what’s true within the heart, and by seeing the subtle differences between what one desires about the world and what one intends to do within it. None of this means the person with same-sex sexual desires is only offered ‘behavior’ modification: rather, it is an attempt to give them more conceptual tools to understand the inner dynamics and temptations within their own hearts, so that they might love the good and avoid the evil with an even more fervent desire than already possesses them. Rather, the extent that we collapse same-sex sexual desires into same-sex sexual behavior is the extent to which we will expect those with the former to undertake the latter, and in so doing deny them in advance the freedom needed to overcome to overcome the fallen dimensions of their desire. The first thing the Christian addicted to pornography needs to hear is: Thou mayest. Not thou must do otherwise, though that is true, but thou may do otherwise because Christ has done otherwise on our behalf. So also the gay Christian: the first word to them is not that they must be free of inordinate sexual desires, but that they may—and that may is the rich soil in which the seed of faith becomes a will. None of that, though, requires adopting Burk’s account of sexual desire—in fact, it seems to require rejecting it.
It is the spiritual program that arises from Burk’s outlook, then, that I find troubling. Were this merely a point of academic dispute, I’d not take the time to argue as I have here. But Burk’s repeated flattening of the moral relevance of the distinctions between acts, desires, and the intentional states that arise from or lead to those acts actually precludes growth within the Christian life, which depends upon recognizing the many and varied ways we interact with the world and the world interacts with us. Such a flattening corresponds to Burk’s insistence that ‘repentance’ applies to the whole complex equally when the object of each is morally wrong. There is no possibility within his view that a Christian might resist a desire for a morally wrong object without being morally culpable for it, and repenting accordingly.
The implications of this are, frankly, incredible—and disturbing for how much they burden the consciences of those who, through no fault of their own, experience desires for morally bad ends. With apologies for the explicitness of the example, consider a woman who is raped and discovers herself simultaneously resisting it and enjoying it. (Such an experience is not unknown.) Suppose, furthermore, that after the fact she experiences the emergence of desires for it to happen again—which, paradoxically, would be desires she cannot choose to fulfill, without violating its own terms. On Burk’s understanding, the having of those desires is an occasion for the woman to repent, in the same way she should repent if she were to have them emerge through a series of decisions to look at similar forms of pornography. Though his example was different, Gagnon raised just this kind of possibility in their discussion, and Burk responded that Gagnon was “making a distinction between rejection and repent that I don’t see.” The desire is ‘sinful’ and the woman who experiences it is ‘sinning,’ and that…is that.
If progressives permit what Scripture forbids, Burk forbids what Scripture permits—namely, an experience of a desire to a morally bad end that is resisted, chosen against, blocked, fled from, told ‘no’ by the Christian. That is Christ’s experience of desire in the Garden, and by His grace it may be ours. Temptations are only ‘occasions for repentance’ if we give ourselves over to them, and allow ourselves to be carried away with a desire that gives birth to sin: otherwise, they are an opportunity in which the Christian reveals and discovers their own sanctified state, such that they can say with Paul it is not themselves but the alien sin dwelling in them that has made them susceptible to just this temptation.
Fundamentally, Burk’s account means fallen people cannot experience temptations as temptations: once the desires arise, repentance is required. Yet a temptation is inherently a moment of conflict within the person, whether the ends being considered are intrinsically morally permissible or not. To be tempted is to experience a moment of freedom, in which we recognize the possibilities of our wrongdoing and are allowed the opportunity to say ‘no.’ As Oliver O’Donovan has written, “temptation is a distinctively Christian idea.” The source of temptation presses upon us (whether it arises from ‘within’ us or from ‘without), rendering our will vulnerable to it in a way that absent the empowerment of grace we are impotent to do otherwise. But together with that sense of impotence, O’Donovan suggests, “there arises the possibility of my recognizing and disowning it; and in this act of repudiation there is transcendence and mastery, which confines the evil to the sphere of unrealized desire.” It is just that ‘transcendence and mastery’ which demand distinguishing between the person and their desire, and seeing the latter in a different moral register than the repentance that culpability requires. But grasping this hangs on allowing distinctions that Burk simply reads out of Scripture.
Moreover, Burk’s account entails that those who experience desires for morally bad ends are not permitted to affirm anything about those ends, to discriminate between the good dimensions within those ends from those that render it morally bad. The spirituality Burk offers gay Christians has an angelic atmosphere—which is not surprising given the docetic strains of his Christology. In a line that shocked me the first time I read it, and that shocks me even now, Burk writes that “No Christian has ever been helped by seeking out the virtuous elements of his or her sinful tendencies.” It is an extraordinary departure from a long tradition of Christian spirituality that is most famously and clearly distilled by Augustine, whose Confessions is one long exercise in doing just that. The whole premise of such a spirituality, of which C.S. Lewis is the best recent proponent, is that evil is a corruption of a good. The desires that incline us to it can be overcome and transformed only through an unremitting honesty about both the evilness of their corruption and the more fundamental, more powerful presence of the goods within them.
The absence of such a possibility on Burk’s account is related, I think, to his attempt to hermetically seal Christ’s experience of temptation from our own. Christ is tempted by goods, which are ‘wrong’ only because they appear in the wrong way and time. That Satan presents him with the possibility of turning stones into bread in His hunger does not mean the desire for bread is bad, even in his state of great need. To deny Jesus that desire because of His deity and the perfection of His will for the Father is to reject his humanity: desires exist in part because we have not yet the Beatific Vision. They are, in that way, a peculiarly human phenomenon.
Burk often cites approvingly Sam Allberry’s line that “temptation would not be tempting if I were pure and not evil.” But that is only a half-truth: The existence of creaturely goods will be tempting even to the pure, precisely because they have not escaped the fallenness of the world. As long as disorder exist in the world around us, we shall at least be tempted to allow it to arise within us. The pure in heart see God within the man Jesus’s vulnerability in the Garden because they, too, know the deep humanity of wanting to enjoy goods that they are tasked with renouncing. The mature in the faith experience this form of temptation precisely because of their sanctity, not its absence. We pray to be kept from it, because in doing so we learn the humility that prepares us for it. But this sanctity can be reached only if within the fallen chaos of our desires we discover not simply corruptions that we renounce but also goods we can delight in. All that will remain, after all, of us are those dimensions that are swept up into Christ’s life. Yet this will include all manner of ways in which our lives have been indelibly and permanently marked by the sins and disorders of the flesh. We might say, in fact, that where we meant our lives for evil, God yet found within them good—because He found within our sinfulness His victorious life, having included our lives already within His own.
Burk’s account has one other troubling implication, though: it means that those who experience peculiarly intense desires for the intimacy, friendship, and joy of being with members of the same sex are precluded from even asking whether their desires are fundamentally or even at all sexual in nature. There is no querying whether the complex of experiences known as a same-sex sexual orientation is, in fact, ordered toward acts which would lead to the arousal and consummation of acts involving reproductive organs. This is not to deny that such desires may begin that way, or even that desires for such initiatory or consummatory sexual acts might appear throughout a person’s life. Rather, it is to suggest that Burk’s anti-Augustinian Freudianism blocks what I take to be some of the most important moral questions before they can even begin. It is the nature of sexual arousal to prevent questions: we enjoy being spontaneously swept along with the joys of reciprocal love. Yet the Christian is allowed and enabled to take the time “to ask,” as Oliver O’Donovan writes, “the question whether he actually desires sexual intimacy” with the person to whom one is drawn. Not “all erotic sensibility is sexual desire,” and the renunciation of the latter is not necessarily equivalent to the rejection of the former.
The gay Christian who sees in the members of their own sex occasions for joyful delight is unequivocally called, on my understanding, to utter a firm and unhesitating “no” to acts which are ordered toward beginning or completing arousal or any use of reproductive parts, and to utter the same ‘no’ to the desires for those acts—but the culpability for undertaking those acts or simply having those desires is very different. But Burk and I also part ways on this: I think gay Christians are permitted to utter a “yes” to the goodness they have discovered, the gladness they feel in the peculiarities of members of their same sex that they have not yet discovered within the other sex. They are free—indeed, possibly obliged—to say ‘yes’ to that about their same-sex to which God has said ‘yes,’ and to even to allow this affirmation a more basic and fundamental place within their self-understanding than the renunciations they are called to. Such an approach is not angelic precisely because it recognizes that same-sex sexual desires are corruptions that include other, morally permissible descriptions of the other person—and that removing the presence of such corrupting elements frees the gay Christian to affirm those descriptions, gladly and joyfully, provided they do so within and beneath the fear and reverence for the unsparing holiness of God Almighty.
There is an important critique against such an account that invariably arises at this point, and which Burk tries to foreclose on by using the APA definitions: proposing that one can be a ’gay Christian’ without that person having sexual desires for the same-sex simply uses the term in an utterly idiosyncratic, utterly novel way. To this I say: precisely. This debate tracks the early Church’s wrestlings with Christology in its appropriation of terminology, as well. The Church encountered what seemed to be an insuperable paradox in the witness of Jesus Christ, which on every side led to distortions of His nature and work. The appropriation of Greek philosophical terms to explain and defend the contents of Scripture was inevitable—as was, when needed, the invention of new terms whole cloth. Yet in their appropriation of an existing vocabulary, the early Christians transformed its content and significance. While the theological issues within the debate over ‘gay Christianity’ are one step removed from those in Christology, there is a similar use of terms at work in order to understand how Scripture informs the renunciation of illicit sexual desires and the corresponding affirmation of the goods those desires glimpse. In one sense, I take gay Christians as trying to steal the meaning of the word back: to mark a certain kind of vivacity of life, of abundance, of joy within a profound intimacy of friendship and a stable set of ‘attractions’ to their same sex, which removes the ‘pride’ in those attractions that raises its fist against God. Why should not Christians today stand in the long line of their forebearers who have said no to the world, but in so doing found within it a Yes that is more potent and powerful—and taken over its own language to name it?
Burk and his organization have attempted to draw the boundaries of conservative evangelicalism around his understanding of sexual desire, such that to step anywhere outside of it is to capitulate to the spirit of our age. For Burk, the ‘neo-traditionalist’ attempt to affirm aspects of a ‘same-sex orientation’ or ‘gay identity’ is “doing something risky.” As he goes on to say, we “shouldn’t be surprised when [the neo-traditionalists] eventually reach the conclusion that same-sex behavior is ‘good’ as well.” This principle of inevitability is baked into Burk’s Manichean outlook on the world, in which the attempt to find and affirm virtues within our vices and goods within evils is one we are not free or empowered to undertake. The failure of one gay Christian to remain orthodox thus becomes evidence that the entire effort is flawed from the start—a principle Burk and his colleagues would (rightly) repudiate with the fiercest denunciations if an egalitarian ever accused their outlook of failure because a complementarian proponent was abusive. Burk’s account needs gay Christians to either renounce their approach or become progressives for its rightness to be vindicated. Is it any wonder that Burk’s organization has engaged in the culture war so vociferously during his and Owen Strachan’s tenure, despite the growing capitulation of heterosexual couples within their own communities to practices like IVF and surrogacy that reshape gender roles within marriages?
Revoice is one attempt to make room for those, like me, who wish to still have an argument about such matters—and to do so in a way that aims at a consistency evangelicalism has long given up on. The gay Christians Nate Collins has brought together are attempting to carve a path through the world that holds resolutely to an orthodox account of same-sex sexual activity, that recognizes (at least) the moral potency of desires, and that takes seriously the complexity of their experiences. There will be imperfect attempts to do this, to be sure. Such a path must be walked as one enters marriage: soberly, reverently, and in the fear of God. There can be no luxuriating in transgressiveness, no adopting of the prophetic for its own sake within the attempt to discover faithfulness. Such stances are doubtless temptations for gay Christians, as they understandably react against environments that are clearly uncongenial to their maturation. Yet it is the gay Christian burden to avoid such a reactionary impulse, and to bear witness in quiet and steady faithfulness to the whole truth of the Gospel in ways that the heterosexually ordered communities around them have manifestly failed to do consistently. Where the conference falls prey to such temptations, I will and have offered my own ‘no.’ Yet there are few more urgent tasks for evangelicalism in this hour than displaying the whole truth of the Gospel on matters of sexual and procreative ethics—and as I have argued above, the view behind evangelicalism’s most recent popular effort to that end, the ill-conceived ‘Nashville Statement,’ grossly fails to do so.
Beneath the conservative opposition to the ‘neo-traditionalists’ lies a grave and profound concern for the integrity of the Gospel, which I welcome and am glad for. Yet it is impossible for me to untether that opposition from the pervasive and extraordinary anxiety within evangelicalism about the capitulation of our churches and institutions to gay marriage. Such fears pervaded the Nashville Statement, and have saturated the response to Revoice. It is an anxiety that stems from deep and fundamental inconsistencies within our community’s moral judgments and practices. The gay ‘neo-traditionalists’ who come from within evangelicalism, and who say ‘no’ to those contradictions while holding fast to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, remind the rest of evangelicalism by their very presence within it of our own deep and pervasive complicity within the Spirit of the Age. No wonder, then, that we would be so eager to draw the boundaries of evangelicalism a little more narrowly than they were previously, so as to escape the judgment on our own Freudianism such lives represent. Such are the costs we are willing to pay in order to preserve our reliance upon contraception and the unchastity that it stems from and breeds.
Being a ‘gay Christian’ is an exceptional life: that is, it is a life that marks a kind of moral exception, a deviation from a norm that discloses certain truths about the world which we may not see otherwise. But as Stanley Hauerwas has noted, “Exceptions are not a problem for a community that is secure in its essential practices.” The absence of such internal security in our own practices requires us to denounce those outside, or redraw the boundaries if we discover those within who undermine our interests. It is a sign of evangelicalism’s frailty that it cannot abide by ‘risky’ attempts to affirm the goods of a life marked by a pervasive susceptibility to same-sex sexual desires, not of its strength or sanctity. Evangelicalism will only speak with the authority of true conviction on such questions when it remembers what chastity demands for its own marriages, and is unhesitating in risking the scorn and repudiation of its own members through naming the respectable sins we have let fester for the sake of our idolatrous commitments to sexual pleasure and biological children. When practices like IVF, surrogacy, and contraception are met with force equal to that with which we have met the great drama of gay marriage before us, I will begin again to trust the leaders God has currently given us. Until then, their denunciations of the world sound to this ear like resounding gongs, and their professions of love for gay Christians like clanging cymbals.
Update: I misattributed the description of Wesley Hill’s account in the first paragraph beneath ‘What Sexual Desire is–And is Not’ to Burk, and have corrected the reading. During my research, I read Burk’s book twice and compiled extensive notes on his view. He quotes the section from Hill on page 25 of ‘Transforming Sexuality,’ and in my notes I inserted my own summary of Hill’s account, to show why the moral questions that arise on Wes’s account simply don’t pertain to Burk’s account. In my drafting, I didn’t notice that I had done this and accordingly misattributed my own summary to Burk. I sincerely regret the error, and apologize to him for it. To be clear, nothing in my reading of Burk’s account hangs on the error–and Burk’s own latest post on the matter confirms, I think, my reading of his view that such disambiguating questions don’t arise on his moral analysis of being ‘gay’ or experience same-sex sexual desires. Still, the inaccuracy of the quotation was my own, and I am sorry for it.