In the past year I have read about six books on the topic of homosexuality and Christianity. I have read many more journal and magazine articles and blog posts. I have studied extensively for preaching on the topic in Romans 1, reading somewhere between 15-25 commentaries on the significant passages.
So when I saw that there was another new book on the topic of homosexuality being published by a Christian publisher — Do Ask, Do Tell, Let’s Talk: Why and How Christians Should Have Gay Friends (by Brad Hambrick, Cruciform Press; $5.99, Kindle edition) — I initially wasn’t interested. But then I read of his premise —
…the aim of this book is friendship. Friendship is the level at which influence can be had, because the dialogue does not seek to represent an agenda but to understand a person. Friendship is what protects good points from becoming gotcha moments. (p. 13)
So I was intrigued. Would reading this book help me in my relationships with those who struggle with SSA (same-sex attraction) and homosexuality? If so, it would fill a particular niche that many other books being written about homosexuality and Scripture have missed.
I have appreciated much of what Brad Hambrick has written on the topic of biblical counseling. His website is filled with helpful resources and biblical direction on a wide variety of topics. I have benefitted often from the resources he has made available there. And I was hopeful the book would similarly prove to be a helpful resource.
The tone of the book is gentle and gracious. Hambrick has obviously interacted with numerous individuals who struggle with SSA and not only is compassionate toward their struggle, but longs for them to know the grace of Christ to free them in and from the struggle.
I also frequently wrote things like, “that’s helpful” in the margin — the book is filled with practical counsel on how to approach relationships with individuals who struggle with SSA. For example:
We will never befriend those whose stories we cannot bear hearing. (p. 23)
…we can’t make someone change. We can’t reason someone to a different sense of attraction. It is impossible to usurp the will of another without becoming sinfully controlling or offensive. (p. 57)
By ascribing excessive explanatory power to SSA, my friend was sabotaging his own desire to resist it. This was something we needed to talk about as friends—not to challenge his experience of SSA or try to decrease his attractions but to comfort his pain without affirming his over-generalized conclusion. (p. 74)
Yet for all the help I have received from Hambrick’s website and in spite of some of the helpful tips that he gave in the book for cultivating relationships, I had three main disappointments with the book.
The most glaring weakness is one I have often had about the biblical counseling movement (of which I am a joyful participant): too often what is labeled as “biblical counseling” is merely good advice, but it is not overtly biblical. I’m sure that many of the principles that Hambrick suggests are rooted in biblical instruction, but he fails to make those connections. This topic was calling for an exposition of many passages in the epistles particularly that demonstrate how the church is to conduct itself with struggling sinners. Particularly in helping church members who struggle with SSA, how is the church to respond? Many passages could have been expounded: Rom. 12, Eph. 5:1ff, and 1 Thess. 5:14-15 come to mind quickly as core passages that would have been helpful. Yet there are no such expositions or explanations.
Further, he caricatures what he calls a common interpretation of Romans 1 (a section that I recently preached over several messages, yet I did not find that interpretation mentioned in any commentary and I have never heard anyone explain it to me the way that he said it is commonly explained); instead he suggests that the Romans passage is not the most prominent passage on homosexuality — “It is wise to remember that the Bible’s clearest passage on a subject is not always its most pertinent” (p. 37). Explaining positively what is meant by Romans 1 and by offering biblical explanations of what he deems the most significant passages on the topic was needed.
Further, throughout the book as Hambrick counseled how believers are to befriend people fighting with SSA, he invariably fails to make biblical connections or offer biblical support for his assertions. Those connections could have been made in many instances, but he failed to do so. And in failing to do that, then the authority and power of Scripture is undermined. Only the Spirit and the Word can produce and keep relationships among people in difficult circumstances; that point is never clearly articulated or defended in the book.
There is also much debate about what is meant by the term same-sex attraction (SSA) and whether or not attraction (or the more biblical term, desire) is a sin. Lambert and Burk have masterfully addressed this topic in their book Transforming Homosexuality, making the case that desire itself is a sin. Any desire that is not glorifying to God is sin. We have no problem saying that gluttonous or covetous or adulterous desires are sin (cf. Mt. 5:27-30). If we desire something sinful, that desire itself is sin. Why do we have trouble saying that about homosexuality? Now I will affirm that everyone has what we might call “creational dispositions” — an inclination to sin in certain areas. Because of the sin nature that everyone is born with, everyone will have a proclivity to particular sins; and those innate attractions themselves are not sin. But as soon as the inclination becomes a desire, it is sin.
It is there that my second concern about Hambrick’s book arises: he fails to see a distinction between inclinations towards homosexual sin and the desire for homosexual sin. Instead he puts all desires towards homosexuality in the broader category of SSA and labels it not as sin, but suffering:
I believe that the best theological category for the experience of unwanted SSA is suffering—something for which we should not feel a perpetual sense of condemnation, because it is primarily the result of living in a broken world which adversely impacts our lives. True suffering is not sin. In response to suffering, God offers comfort, not forgiveness. At the same time, suffering is always a context for temptation, and we are responsible for our response to suffering. (pp. 18-19)
That’s ultimately not helpful to dealing with SSA — it makes people struggling with that sin victims of something that is outside of them and uncontrollable rather than something that is internal and thereby forgivable and transformable.
And that leads me to my third concern. There is a sense in the book that homosexuality is a special category of sin that needs a particular kind of treatment; dealing with this sin in the way we deal with other sins will not work. That is never stated in those terms, but the book reads that way. Throughout the book, Hambrick seems hesitant (especially chapters 4-5) to deal with desires and actions as sin; instead the reader is exhorted to ask questions and invite conversation rather than confront the sinner (especially the one who is in the church and claiming to be a believer). For example, he suggests that when a believer acknowledges that he is in a physical homosexual relationship that we need to ask things like:
- How did the two of you meet?
- How long have you been together?
- How have people—family, friends, Christians—responded to your relationship?
- What are some of the dumb things people say when they learn about your relationship? I would prefer to learn from their mistakes than risk making them myself.
- If your friends have children: How do your kids refer to each of you? (Use those titles when referencing a given parent to one of the children.)
- Would the two of you like to come over for dinner?
- What do the two of you do for fun? Could I/we join you? (pp. 77-78)
At that point I asked two questions: 1) Is this how he would deal with a “believer” who was a serial adulterer or child molester or someone ensnared in pornography? 2) Just when do you then begin to address biblical principles with the person and call him to repentance? Being a friend also includes openly and directly confronting sin and calling for repentance. To avoid that call is an act of hatred and denotes a lack of love for the individual. Further, the sins of SSA and homosexuality are sins that can be dealt with in the same way as every other sin — confession, repentance, and restoration. The sins need to be put off, righteous thinking about the sin needs to be cultivated, and righteous activity needs to be put on in place of the sin (Eph. 4:22-24). Is it worth working to cultivate and keep relationships to continue to walk alongside struggling individuals? YES! But do we do that at the expense of calling people to repent as we would for other life-dominating sins? No.
I am thankful that Hambrick has begun speaking about this topic. For everything else that has been written about homosexuality from a biblical perspective, this is a topic that has been overlooked. I was hopeful that this book would be if not the definitive work on the topic, at least a very helpful step in that direction. Unfortunately, for all the good that is in the book, there are too many inherent weaknesses to make it worth recommending.
[A free digital copy of this book was made available for the purposes of reviewing this book.]