Good Motives, Middling Result: Hambrick’s Do Ask, Do Tell, Let’s Talk

image with gay pride flags on left, anti-homosexuality protest sign on the rightImage: Pious Eye (David M. Hodges) modification and combination of images showing support of and opposition to homosexuality, acquired through Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons licenses permitting adaptation. Source images are as follows: (1) flags for sale at Gay Pride 2015, Toulouse, by Gyrostat under CC BY-SA 4.0 license; (2) protesters at Gay Pride 2005, Jerusalem, by Benj (Flickr) under CC BY 2.0 license. In accord with the more restrictive of the source image licenses, this combination may be used under the same license, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Hambrick, Brad. Do Ask, Do Tell, Let’s Talk: Why and How Christians Should Have Gay Friends. Minneapolis: Cruciform Press, 2016. Pdf, 125 pages. ISBN 978-1-941114-11-7.

On one extreme, radical Islamic clerics persuade followers that because homosexual behavior is contrary to God’s will, it is an act of piety to kill “gays,” just as it is to kill Western infidels in general. On the other extreme, Western secularists promote acceptance of homosexual behavior as normal, healthy, and morally right, celebrating it with “gay pride” events, affirming it by lighting up of the White House in “gay pride” rainbow lights, and proclaiming their support for those engaged in it, often (particularly if they are government officials) speaking as though all good Americans share their viewpoint. Extremist secular leaders add to this assertions that any who reject their view are hate-filled bigots, mentally ill phobics, or both, who are creating an environment that encourages violence against “gays.”

Bible-believing Christians reject both extremes. Called to do all they can (short of sinning) to remain at peace with others (Romans 12:18), to obey the laws of their nations (whenever they can do so without committing sin) (Titus 3:1, Romans 13:1-5), and to act with benevolence toward (seeking what is best for, most in the true interests of) even those hostile toward God, God’s truth, and God’s people (Matthew 5:43-5, 2 Timothy 2:24-6), Bible believers condemn and oppose the murder-as-Islamic-piety extreme, as they condemn and oppose any lawless killing, whatever its alleged justification. Recognizing, however, that homosexual behavior is contrary to God’s will and to nature as he designed it (Romans 1:26-7), and that nations that promote and celebrate it cannot expect good results (Leviticus 18:22-4; Psalm 2:10-12), they know their duty is to warn those engaged in homosexuality, and the nations that celebrate them, that they are in danger (Ezekiel 33:2-6), and to tell them of God’s gracious provision for the deliverance of all among them who will repent (Matthew 26:19; Luke 24:46-7; John 3:16; Acts 17:30-1; Ezekiel 18:32; II Peter 3:9).

Lacking the one-dimensional simplicity of both radical Islam and extremist secularism, the Christian’s joint affirmation of Scripture-revealed morality and of Christ-exemplified benevolence toward its violators can seem difficult to promote and apply. Given this, Bible believers are certainly in need of sound books that combine the benevolence of Christ with uncompromising affirmation of Scripture’s moral precepts and principles.

Brad Hambrick’s Do Ask, Do Tell, Let’s Talk seeks to be such a book. I don’t think it entirely succeeds. In places, it seems to move past Christian benevolence into a live-and-let-live don’t-force-your-views-on-others realm that derives more from postmodern American culture with its libertarian tendencies than from Scripture. And it has numerous other defects, some of which I will discuss, due either to such misjudgment of what constitutes true Christian benevolence, to too-superficial discussion made unavoidable by the publisher’s goal “to keep it simple” and to “publish short, clear…books” that “are easy to read” and tend to run about 100 pages (6), or to other causes (such as failure to take variation in Christians’ personality types sufficiently into account when offering advice).

In spite of this, Hambrick’s understanding of biblical sexual ethics seems sound overall, and his practical suggestions do contain much that could prove useful to Bible believers reaching out to those who admit to experiencing same-sex attraction or who identify themselves as “homosexual” or “gay.” (I try to put these terms in quotation marks whenever they are used as descriptors of persons, of identity, because such usage is misguided and lacks biblical warrant.) So, I’ll note some of its more positive and useful content below. In order to end on a positive note, however, I’ll cover some of its noteworthy defects first.

“First,” that is, after two asides. The first aside helps explain my interest in Do Ask, Do Tell…. In this book, Hambrick addresses the question of how Christians should interact with those who admit to experiencing same-sex attraction, or who self-identify as “gay.” This shouldn’t be confused with the separate question of what sort of legal and cultural environment Christians should support, meaning what laws they should try to pass and what cultural attitudes they should hope to make more prevalent. Hambrick thinks the legal-environment question relatively unimportant (15). I, in contrast, think it very important. My sense of its importance has led me to make some effort to discern how God-mandated, Jesus-exemplified Christian benevolence might be relevant to the legal environment. As you might know, there are Christians today (granted they are a small minority) who think that Bible-compliant law requires enforcement by modern governments of the penalties God imposed upon sexual sins in Old Testament Israel (key words: Theonomy, Christian Reconstruction). In the cases of both homosexuality and adultery, this would mean execution (Leviticus 20:10,13). Though I respect those who hold this view for elevating God’s own words in Scripture above their feelings and the currents of American culture, the view doesn’t strike me as compatible with Christian benevolence. (Non-capital sodomy laws might be a different matter, since, some might argue, an environment outlawing homosexual activity would ultimately be better for those experiencing same-sex attraction than an all-permissive libertarian one. Supporters of such laws might ask, “Would not such laws deter many from indulging homosexual impulses, even motivate them to seek guidance and help from others in resisting and overcoming, as well as understanding, such impulses?”)

My thinking on this is fundamentally what is was back in 2013, when I reviewed a book that favored enforcement of Old Testament penalties against homosexual behavior (Pious Eye site, “Swanson’s Apostate: Merits Reading, Could Be Better,” “Problem Content 3: Whom Would Jesus Execute?” subheading, posted 23 September 2013, verified available 23 May 2016). My continued assurance that the laws of Moses imposed penalties on sexual sins harsher than we are expected to impose today owes much to John 8:3-11, where God in the flesh permits “go and sin no more” repentance in place of the Old Testament penalty for adultery. (Since those who accept mainstream textual criticism reject this passage, I’m once again glad I hold to the Received Text. Of course, even in the Old Testament, God freely imposed different punishments than those he handed down to Moses [2 Samuel 12], so his leniency as Christ may not imply all I’d like it to imply.) That there are Christians today who think sexual sins punished by death in the Old Testament should be punished by death today perhaps did more to interest me in a book aiming to help Christians reach out in benevolence to those inclined toward, or who have already indulged in, one such sin. Were no Bible believer today advocating capital punishment for sexual sins, I might not have requested a free pdf of Do Ask, Do Tell…, which I received in exchange for an unbiased review. (Unbiased, that is, by my receipt of the free copy. Any review written by a human being will, of course, be biased in one way or another.)

(It occurs to me that some readers might find my talk of “benevolence” rather than “love” off-putting. In the debate over sexual ethics, however, the term “love” has been badly abused. For instance, the terrorist who attacked the “gay” nightclub in Orlando was said by many to have thought it permissible to kill people because of whom they “loved.” And no doubt you’ve seen the “love wins” signs in images of various “gay” events, such as those celebrating the Supreme Court’s imposition of homosexual “marriage” on all American states. As well, use of “love” when speaking of carnal heterosexual indulgence, regardless of marriage context or procreational intent, has been well establish for many years. Though importing the Greek term “agape” and specifying “selfless love” are more popular alternatives, “benevolence” seems to me more clear and precise.)

The second aside provides some useful background information and illuminates my starting perspective. You’ll recall that in an earlier parenthetical I said of the terms “gay” and “homosexual” that “I try to put these terms in quotation marks whenever they are used as descriptors of persons, of identity, because such usage is misguided and lacks biblical warrant.” Reflecting on some news a while back, I wrote this: “Insofar as they act in accordance with Scripture, Christians do not reject anyone because of ‘orientation’ (desire, inclination)….In fact, biblical Christians only reject persons when, by persistent refusal to repent and open hostility to the gospel, they make it impossible to reject their behavior (actions indulging sinful inclinations) without also rejecting them” (Pious Eye site, “A Month that Will Live in Infamy: October 2014 (Reflection on News in My Local Paper),” posted 31 October 2014, verified available 23 May 2016). In choosing this wording, I was objecting to the practice of applying these “orientation” labels to people as though “sexual orientation” were an inborn trait fundamental to identity. I learned more recently that what I was objecting to is called “orientation essentialism” (Michael W. Hannon, “Against Heterosexuality,” First Things site, March 2014, online document discovered 01 May 2016, verified still available 23 May 2016). I don’t endorse every assertion in Hannon’s article. For example, unlike Hannon, I still think “homosexual” and “heterosexual,” and “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality,” are apt labels for behaviors and the inclinations that motivate them. I do endorse its rejection of orientation essentialism, however, and so share its opposition to use of the labels “homosexual” and “heterosexual” to describe people. I must agree with Hannon when he writes, “The role of the champion of Christian chastity today…is to dissociate the Church from the false absolutism of identity based on erotic tendency, and to rediscover our own anthropological foundation for traditional moral maxims.” For Bible-believing Christians, of course, the “anthropological foundation” to be looked to is all that Scripture has to say about human beings as created in the image of God and fallen into sin.

Opening asides aside, on to a closer look at Hambrick’s book, which he dedicates to “those who have felt that their experience of same-sex attraction has left them isolated within or from the Body of Christ” (1). This brief book’s layout is as follows: it begins with an introduction titled “Please Don’t Skip Me” (7-11), ends (if one disregards the “More books from…” advertising) with a few pages of endnotes (123-5), and organizes its core content into the following six chapters: (1) “Beyond the Us-Them Divide” (13-29), (2) “Comfortable Being Uncomfortable” (31-45), (3) “Learning about the Experience of SSA” (47-62), (4) “Getting to Know a Christian Experiencing SSA: Key Markers on the Journey” (63-80), (5) “Getting to Know a Non-Christian Experiencing SSA: Winning an Argument vs. Influencing a Friend” (81-100), and (6) “Navigating Difficult Conversations” (101-22). The “SSA” in the third chapter’s title stands for “same-sex attraction.” For whatever reason, perhaps to meet a Cruciform Press word or character limit, Hambrick uses initialisms instead of full phrases. Other initialisms he adopts include “OSA” for “opposite-sex attraction,” “GI” for “gay identity,” and “HB” for “homosexual behavior.” (Those professing to experience no sexual attractions, who typically self-identify as “asexual,” may be disappointed that they are not mentioned. Given that the “NSA” initialism in already prominent, the lack of mention may be for the best. Those self-identifying as “bisexual” might also be disappointed, since Do Ask, Do Tell… seems generally to assume individuals are either opposite-sex attracted or same-sex attracted.) Though I certainly empathize with Hambrick if he adopted these initialisms to meet a word or character limit, I have to admit I don’t care for them and would have been much happier had he used the full phrases throughout.

On the Negative Side ^

I’ll be honest: there are many things I dislike about this little book. Some of what I dislike are minor annoyances. The initialisms just mentioned are one example. Adoption of a couple vogue English usage conventions is another. For example, the book adopts the vogue whom-less usage that jettisons separate subjective and objective cases. This usage may be the inevitable future of English, but the loss of precision still makes me sad. This usage, at least, it adopts consistently.

It also follows the increasingly popular practice of using third-person-plural pronouns (“they,” “them,” “their”) as generic third-person singulars (according to which a person must watch their usage). This too may be English’s future, since, though illogical, it feels natural (even irresistible) to most, has long been prevalent in spoken and informal usage, and reads better than “he or she, “him or her,” and “his or her.” But the progressive loss from English of unambiguously plural third-person pronouns signals another lamentable loss of precision. Like the earlier loss of unambiguously plural second-person pronouns (“ye,” “you,” and “your,” contrasting with singular “thou,” “thee,” and “thine”), it may be inevitable, but it’s still sad. As well, Do Ask, Do Tell… adopts this plurals-for-singulars convention inconsistently, even using contradictory variants on the same page (80, for example).

Among defects that are more than minor annoyances, I would have to include Hambrick’s evident belief that our nation’s attitude toward homosexuality, not only permissive but increasingly celebratory, poses no danger to the nation’s future nor to the potential for a future revival among its Christian people (15). His related belief that emotional stories of bad experiences (Alan Turing’s conviction for homosexual activity under British sodomy laws of his day) should influence law (31-2) also concerns me, not because I think restoration of sodomy laws is a good idea (I’m undecided), but because even the most just laws can produce cases that will strike many as tragic: principles, not feelings, must be the basis of law, though the extent to which feelings may properly influence application of just laws can be debated. I admit I prefer (sometimes with reservations) a legal order where personal liberty reigns in the realm of private consensual activity, provided that legal order does not limit freedom of believers to condemn and oppose openly and publicly such activity (in speech and writing, not with force), and to opt out of all involvement with or assistance of such activities, I must also admit that this is simply a bias of mine that may not be well grounded in Scripture, that may owe more to my American upbringing than to a fair appraisal of all that Scripture says on the subject. Scripture does, after all, indicate that the laws God gave Israel through Moses were, compared to laws of other nations, uniquely correct and praiseworthy (Deuteronomy 4:8). And these laws did require punishment of acts committed by “consenting adults,” though the requirement of witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15) would have meant no activities kept private would be punished.

I should perhaps also note that, like many Christians trying to combine the American bias toward liberty with all the Bible says on various subjects, I have not been perfectly consistent. Though private property rights would seem to require that private companies be free to adopt whatever foolish and dangerous “transgender” bathroom policies they like, I have joined socially conservative groups in supporting a state whose lawmakers have decided that safety and recognition of natural gender are more important than private companies’ property rights. As well, since rights are given by God, I have noted that one cannot have a “right” to what is against God and nature, so that it is appropriate to refuse by law to call homosexual unions “marriage” and to deny same-sex unions legal privileges granted to opposite-sex (real) marriages. On the same rights-are-God-given basis, I also think that, rather than being added to insurance plans, “gender reassignment” surgery should be made illegal. So, though I would have been happier had Hambrick not revealed his biases in law and politics, my own inconsistencies require that I not judge Hambrick’s legal and political biases too harshly, at least not until my views more perfectly comport with one another.

In his first chapter, “Beyond the Us-Them Divide,” Hambrick emphasizes that this “is a book about individual Christians learning to form better friendships with…[various acquaintances] who experience same-sex attraction or embrace a gay identity,” not a book about church outreach to “the gay community” (13-4). He wishes to discourage an approach to relationships with such acquaintances that suggests “that from the Christian perspective the only two possible outcomes in such a relationship are conversion on the other person’s part or compromise on our part,” since such an approach “will make it very hard for us to develop an authentic relationship of trust” with them (14). He also notes his disagreement with those who think (as I do) that the “moral-political issues surrounding homosexuality” are matters of high importance to America’s future and the future of her churches, then launches into a discussion of “heterosexual privilege” as an example of the “built-in advantage” possessed by “Any member of a majority culture” (15). This discussion may strike some readers as too politically correct to permit further reading. For my part, I just wrote “groan” in the margin and moved on. That’s not quite accurate. I also wrote the following: “Bible-believing no-sex-outside-of-marriage ‘heterosexuals’ are not part of this contemporary majority culture.” Because he does not experience same-sex attraction, however, Hambrick thinks he is a privileged member of this majority culture, and that he must “weigh [his] words accordingly” to avoid stepping on minority toes.

Hambrick also notes that his experience of issues related to same-sex attraction and homosexuality has been acquired through his work as a pastoral counselor, mainly with male counselees. This counseling background is significant. One can tell from Do Ask, Do Tell… that Hambrick lives in that empathetic emotional space where people who take most naturally to counseling tend to live. This makes for a type of book that will be most appreciated by (and useful to) persons residing in that same space. I, however, live in a very different space. Intellectual and moral analysis and, to a lesser degree, activism guided by the findings of such analysis, is what I’m about. Touchy-feely emotional stuff, including Hambrick’s calls to “have fun together” (79) with all the same-sex-attracted and “gay” friends I’m supposed to make—not my thing. My idea of a friend is someone with whom I share common convictions and can, because of this, join in pursuit of common causes. I can’t recall ever having considered “a friend” someone whose convictions differed greatly (differed in fundamental, foundational ways) from my own. Given what a different space I live in from Hambrick’s, I have to admit I’ve struggled to process this little book, setting it aside for extended periods (hence the long-ago date that I verified availability of some online references). Others in my space may have similar difficulty. Though I will certainly strive to live peaceably and interact cordially with persons whose convictions differ from my own (Romans 12:18), and though I would not end a common-convictions friendship because a friend’s vexing and hated temptations included same-sex attraction, I can’t see myself calling an active and unrepentant homosexual my “friend” (Amos 3:3). “Civil, benevolent acquaintance” seems the best I’ll be able to do in such cases. Hambrick’s failure to take into account the different emotional spaces, or the differing personality types, of potential readers seems one of Do Ask, Do Tell…’s important weaknesses.

Though Hambrick’s understanding of biblical sexual morality seems sound overall, as I’ve noted, he does seem to let counselor’s bias or American culture influence his understanding in places. While introducing the initialisms I’ve already complained about, Hambrick also explains what he means by his chosen terminology. When explaining his use of “homosexual behavior,” after rightly noting it is a choice for which choosers are morally responsible, he decides to add the following: “We must realize that looking at gay porn is not ‘dirtier’ than looking at straight porn….Extra-marital sex is equally wrong regardless of the gender-pairing” (20). He offers no biblical justification for this assertion. He seems to be relying on an assumption widespread among contemporary evangelicals that every sin is equally bad in God’s sight; hence he emphasizes in a note that he doesn’t condone the “sizing of sin” (123). At the same time, he thinks that “looking at child porn” is far more “consequential” than looking at the “gay” and “straight” varieties. Rather than seeing different acts as more bad as they become more perverse, meaning more out of accord with God’s will and the corresponding design reflected in nature (so that, for example, child molestation would be worse than consensual homosexuality which would be worse than consensual heterosexuality), Hambrick seems to import a secular standard that deems all acts of “consenting adults” morally equal.

Hambrick’s portrayal of homosexual activity as no more sinful or perverse than natural sex sinfully pursued outside of marriage doesn’t seem credible in light of Scripture. Adultery was a capital crime under Moses, true, but it was not portrayed as the same land-defiling abomination that homosexual activity was. God did not rain down fire on Sodom and Gomorrah because of widespread adultery, after all. In a decaying society where, if unavoidable popular culture is any indication, heterosexuality typically includes a range of perverse non-procreative activities matching what is for homosexuals the only “sex” possible, the degree to which homosexuality goes more against nature than unmarried or extramarital heterosexuality may be less than it would be if heterosexuality were properly limited to its intended context (marriage) and purpose (procreation, with the secondary benefit of solidifying the marriage bond). (Interestingly, Hannon notes that the term “heterosexuality” was initially used only for those heterosexual activities contrary to sexuality’s purpose.) Still, partner choice cannot be treated as morally irrelevant, since God’s design, in addition to requiring marriage, monogamy, and proper purpose, permits only an opposite-sex partner.

I don’t raise this issue to justify or encourage a judgmental spirit, much less to discourage readers from heeding Hambrick’s call to reach out to those with this particular sin problem. The proper attitude for all of us who believe the Bible is to treat our own sinful inclinations, and the resulting sinful actions, as the ones most worthy of our condemnation and most demanding of our attention (Matthew 7:5). Still, we need to train ourselves to think biblically about sins in general. One way to do this is to disabuse ourselves of the scripturally groundless belief that every sin is equal in the eyes of God, whether theft of a pencil, stealing of a car, heterosexual fornication, heterosexual adultery, homosexual activity, bestiality, or murder. True, even the most minor sin is infinitely more sin than our perfectly holy and just God could tolerate had he not himself atoned for it on his people’s behalf. But some sins are indeed minor compared to others, some especially severe. To think otherwise is to reject all that one’s God-given moral sense should make obvious. Homosexual activity, as is clear wherever such activity is mentioned in Scripture, is among the “especially severe” sins.

Hambrick’s counselor’s bias stands out even more when he explains what he means by “same-sex attraction.” He says it “is simply the experience of realizing that you find members of the same gender attractive to the point that you are aroused and romantically captivated. This experience,” he adds, “is usually not chosen.” He then adds this: “Think about it: if you experience opposite-sex attraction, when did you choose this preference?” (18) Though “same-sex attraction” seems appropriate terminology (at least initially), Hambrick’s definition and “Think about it” don’t entirely work for me. The odd wording of his definition, which identifies same-sex attraction as “the experience of” finding attractive, rather than as that state of being attracted, is exceedingly strange, and it doesn’t fit with mentions throughout the book of persons who “experience same-sex attraction”: they experience experiencing attraction to persons of the same-sex? This ill-advised tacking-on of “the experience of,” along with the highly subjective “Think about it,” seem motivated by Hambrick’s effort to fit his assertions to what the same-sex-attracted he’s counseled have told him of their own understandings (interpretations) of their experiences.

The thinking behind this effort becomes most clear in Do Ask, Do Tell…’s third chapter, which focuses upon certain things Hambrick has found commonly experienced by most same-sex-attracted persons he’s dealt with or read about. In this chapter, Hambrick writes, “based on my counseling experience, study, and conversations with other pastors and counselors, I’m convinced that most…of those who struggle with [same-sex attraction] did not choose this preference” (54). Later in the same chapter, he emphasizes that “we need to understand that [same-sex attraction] is not primarily about sex.” A bit later he adds this: “Indeed, I have often heard [same-sex-attraction] strugglers emphasize, ‘It’s not really about who[m] I want to have sex with.’ Sexual attraction certainly plays a role in [same-sex attraction], but it’s not typically a primary focus” (59).

This is painful to read because, fundamentally, it’s nonsense. I respect that persons who experience same-sex attraction have all sorts of non-sexual emotions and impulses that they think are essential parts of their same-sex attraction. Biblically speaking, though, the sin to be focused on and avoided is sexual activity with members of one’s own sex. No matter how much one is drawn or “attracted” to people of one’s own sex, if the “attraction” includes no sexual interest, it isn’t “same-sex attraction” in the sense in which that terminology should be used to discuss those tempted toward, or already involved in, homosexuality. No matter how much a male feels “alienated or isolated from male peers,” no matter how strong his “desire to be liked and to belong” (60), one shouldn’t say he’s struggling with same-sex attraction until he experiences attraction to sex with the same sex. Hambrick’s desire to fit his thinking to same-sex-attracted counselees’ interpretations of their experiences may show praiseworthy empathy, but it strikes me as unhelpful if our goal is to make God’s perspective as expressed in Scripture clear. Hannon’s remarks may be pertinent here: “The Bible never called [homosexual orientation] an abomination. Leviticus predates any conception of sexual orientation by a couple of millennia at least. What the Scriptures condemn is [homosexual behavior], regardless of who commits it or why” (“Against Heterosexuality”). (My bracketed emendations in the preceding fit Hannon’s insight to this review’s terminology: where I’ve inserted “homosexual orientation,” Hannon says “homosexuality,” and where I’ve inserted “homosexual behavior,” Hannon says “sodomy.” Since “sodomy” in current usage can refer to certain non-procreative heterosexual activities, in addition to homosexuality and bestiality, Hannon may have in mind more than just homosexual behavior, though that is certainly included. As well, given Hannon’s use of “homosexuality” here to mean “homosexual orientation,” I should note that in my usage “homosexuality” most often means “homosexual behavior [activity],” though I might use it in some contexts to mean “homosexual inclination [orientation].” I’ll try always to use more precise terminology when the meaning of “homosexuality” isn’t clear from context.) Hambrick confirms this behavior-not-inclination-condemned understanding of Leviticus (19).

Hambrick’s it’s-not-mainly-about-sex construal of “same-sex attraction” suggests, additionally, that even the “same-sex attraction” terminology may not be sufficiently precise to avoid confusion (hence my earlier “at least initially” parenthetical on its appropriateness). After all, discounting Freud’s perverse understanding of human nature, most “attraction” is not attraction to sexual activity, but, as already noted, sexual activity is the focus of biblical condemnation of behaviors today characteristic of “gays.” In light of this criticism, it may be that Hambrick, and various same-sex-attracted persons whose experiences (more precisely, whose interpretations of their experiences) inform Hambrick’s perspective, have been misled by the terminology itself. Would “same-sex sexual attraction” be too ponderous a replacement? Whether it would be or not, I will always use “same-sex attraction” in the sense of “same-sex sexual attraction,” rather than in Hambrick’s sometimes confused sense that includes non-sexual “attraction” and hangs entirely on subjective appraisals of experience.

Since my survey of Do Ask, Do Tell…’s noteworthy defects skipped from the book’s first to its third chapter, I suppose I should also discuss the most memorable defect of its second chapter. A fair amount of this stumbling-block-removal chapter focuses on a “misguided interpretation of Romans 1:24-7” that Hambrick believes “undergirds much of the internal resistance that Christians experience when it comes to the idea of having gay friends” (34-5). He says that “many well-intentioned Christians” hold to this interpretation, as would have to be the case were the interpretation to have the broad influence Hambrick thinks it does. The interpretation applies the passage to a progression of sin in individual lives, concluding that same-sex attraction “only happens when someone persistently pursues heterosexual sex outside of marriage,” after which, “In some…cases, God then judges that person by allowing his or her sexual interests to become homosexual in nature.” This creates what Hambrick calls a “‘progressive sexual depravity’ model” (35). Since this is the first I’ve heard of this interpretation, and since this individualized reading has never occurred to me when reading the passage, I’m surprised to learn it’s common and influential. Though it is clear from the passage that homosexual activity is unnatural and perverse in a way that heterosexual activity is not (verses 26-7), it seems clear from the context that the passage describes unbelieving (specifically, pagan Roman) culture corporately, highlighting the culture-wide descent into the most extreme and perverse sins, the sins most profoundly against nature as God planned and created it, that results when a culture rejects worship of the true God (verses 22-23). The idea of a “Romans 1 road to homosexuality” (37, emphasis removed) for individuals seems so wholly alien to the passage that I’m finding it hard to believe that the idea is as widely believed and influential as Hambrick claims.

I’m also disappointed that the culture-wide, corporate reading that has always struck me as most natural, in fact obvious, isn’t even suggested by Hambrick. Instead, he only proposes that “in a Roman context, where worship practices for the various gods involved many immoral sexual rituals, this path to [same-sex attraction] would have been relatively common. In our day…” other factors are at play and a different path dominates. As if this missing-of-the-point were not bad enough, Hambrick has to add the sort of flippant statement persons who fail to respect Scripture as highly as they should so often resort to: “It is wise to remember that the Bible’s clearest passage on a subject is not always its most pertinent. If that were the case, then the main thing the Bible would say to women is to submit and wear a hat, and the main thing the Bible would say about greeting guests at church is ‘pucker up’” (37). Any faithful Bible believer is going to find this disrespectful tone and flippancy irritating. If you’re going to bring up contested interpretive questions where certain readings make people uncomfortable, you’d best be planning to discuss them at length and explain why you take the interpretive positions you do. Simply mocking what you think would be the implications of some of “the Bible’s clearest passage[s]” makes you look like a full-of-yourself mocker of the Sacred Text who doesn’t take the Bible or its Author, much less those faithful to it and him, seriously. When someone publishing a work meant to instruct Christians shows more willingness to empathize with those engaged in homosexuality than with those who (for instance) think 1 Corinthians 11:3-10 requires women to wear head coverings in church, something is very wrong.

In passing, I might note that Matthew Henry seems to have found the culture-wide interpretation as obvious as I do. He opens his discussion of Romans 1:19-32 by stating, “In this last part of the chapter the apostle applies what he had said particularly to the Gentile world.” He later adds these remarks: “The crying iniquity of Sodom and Gomorrah, for which God rained hell from heaven upon them, became not only commonly practiced, but avowed, in the pagan nations” (Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible, public domain, Sword Module MHC version 1.6 for Xiphos Bible software; spelling of “practiced” modified). Since the only thing that made the Jews non-Gentiles was God’s selection of them from the mass of humankind (Deuteronomy 7:6), and his giving of faith to a representative portion of them (Romans 2:28-9, Ephesians 2:9), it seems legitimate to take this discussion of “the Gentile world” and “the pagan nations” as applicable to unbelieving cultures generally, and so as broadly indicative of the dangers of unbelief. Unbelieving rejection of the true God is the cause of culture-wide descent into increasingly unnatural sexual sin: “God gave them up,” Henry writes, “in a way of righteous judgment, as the just punishment of their idolatry—taking off the bridle of restraining grace—leaving them to themselves—letting them alone; for his grace is his own, he is debtor to no man, he may give or withhold his grace at pleasure” (Ibid.). (On the subject of Matthew Henry, curious readers may find his discussion of 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 helpful in making sense of the “because of the angels” in verse 10, which many think obscure. There Henry lays out two potential interpretations, one of which seems most natural in the context of the the New Testament. This behave-properly-because-God’s-good-angels-are-watching interpretation, which makes me think of Proverbs 15:3, seems quite clear if one comes to the text without the prior assumption that this whole passage is impossible to understand without specialized knowledge of relevant historical and cultural information. Modern commentators, in light of such specialized knowledge, no doubt suggest a range of other alleged possibilities that would never occur to anyone reading Scripture alone.)

In summary, then, I would never try to defend applying this passage to individuals, and I’m shocked to learn that anyone reads it that way. In terms of the culture-wide, corporate reading that I find most natural, the reality that homosexual activity really is worse than heterosexual fornication and adultery seems clear from the passage, as it is clear from the portrayal of God’s attitude toward homosexuality throughout Scripture. When a culture has reached the depths of unbelieving depravity, as Rome had done (or was well into the process of doing), and as ours seems determined to do, the most extreme, perverse, and unnatural of sins grow in prevalence. Sins prevalent in a culture are available to all; lesser “gateway sins” are not needed. There is thus no need to speculate about the differing paths of individuals into homosexual sin in ancient Rome and modern America, because the passage at issue isn’t talking about how individuals progress into this abominable sin, but about how whole cultures do so. Individual sinners now, as then, may choose any path their desperately wicked hearts prefer.

Chapters four through six of Do Ask, Do Tell… contain Hambrick’s most specific how-to advice. Were I to take into account all my notes, markings, and marginal “Ugh!”s and “groan”s in these chapters, I might well write a review longer than Do Ask, Do Tell… itself. I won’t do that. Since I’ve already noted what seem to me the book’s greatest defects, I won’t discuss much that troubles me in these final chapters. I’ll only note that Hambrick seems to me to let his own feelings about what is “constructive” or “helpful” or “likely to succeed” make him miss a truth that to me seems obvious: to always forthrightly honor God’s truth as God has given one to understand it, by stating it clearly and without compromise, is a Christian’s duty. Truth telling and (civil) debate are not things to be eschewed in favor of more “helpful” and “constructive” (non-“offensive”) feelings-centered conversations about subjective experiences. God might indeed call some people, such as Hambrick, to focus more upon the latter than the former, but this doesn’t mean he does not call others to simply proclaim his truth, debate in defense of it, and try to make clear how it applies to all areas of life and thought.

Though Hambrick at one point seems to grant that involvement in “the public square of open debate” has at least some value (72), his dislike for debate, and for proclamation of God’s truth outside established friendships, is evident throughout the book. He grants in one place that debate “has a valuable place,” though (in his opinion) “not as a way to build friendship” (81). (The claim that civil debate has no value in friendship building is something those familiar with friendly iron-sharpening-iron debates [Proverbs 27:17] won’t find credible.) But a short while later he associates “debate mode” with a sinful desire to manipulate (84-5), then goes on to make a list of undesirable “Debate-Oriented Focal Points” versus desirable “Conversation-Oriented Focal Points” (86-7). I can’t help but think Hambrick’s personality type and counselor’s calling have (again) made him unduly biased. This particular sort of bias, perhaps a manifestation of what some call the “feminization” of church life, has made some of us feel very out of place in contemporary churches, just as it has made me feel out of place reading this book. If Hambrick can so accommodate even those who actively practice homosexuality in his outreach, why is he unable to accommodate faithful Christians whose personalties and emotions don’t square with his own?

On the Positive Side ^

In his introduction, Hambrick explains Do Ask, Do Tell…’s purpose. He believes that “the church has yet to articulate a wise and biblical way to move toward those in our churches and communities who struggle with same-sex attraction” (8). Though churches “have articulated their position on a conservative sexual ethic” and have responded to challenges from those advocating “a progressive sexual ethic,” tasks he grants are important, Hambrick holds that this clarification and defense of biblical sexual ethics “does not equip everyday Christians to develop meaningful friendships with people who experience same-sex attraction or have embraced a gay identity” (8). While granting that “love apart from truth is sentimental and unhelpful,” Hambrick maintains that “truth apart from love is harsh and unlivable,” and so he offers Do Ask, Do Tell… as “an attempt to prepare God’s people for rich, biblically-informed, gospel-saturated engagement that is both practical and realistic” (11).

Hambrick believes that Christians “should seek meaningful friendships with those who experience same-sex attraction” (16), and that enabling this requires that churches not create “a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ climate” (17). He also believes that adopting and using a common vocabulary within the church will help the process along. The three terms he adopts, meant to describe, respectively, the disposition, the identity, and the behavior that a same-sex-attracted individual can progress through, have already been noted: same-sex attraction, gay identity, and homosexual behavior (18-20). (As I have, the reader has probably encountered some of this terminology before; it isn’t original to Hambrick.) On the second of these, Hambrick writes, “Not everyone who experiences [same-sex attraction] has to identify as gay. Identity is a choice, one that should be made based on more factors than the persistence of a particular attraction” (20). This is sound, and it accords well with Hannon’s and my rejection of orientation essentialism. On the third of these, homosexual behavior, Hambrick says, “This is the choice to engage in sexual practices with or stimulated by a member of the same gender….a matter of choice and, therefore, the moral responsibility of the chooser” (20). This too is sound. (Note also how Hambrick uses “gender” as a synonym for biological sex. In addition to being sound, this word choice is especially laudable because it will displease the politically correct.)

Hambrick thinks that same-sex attraction (at least the “unwanted” variety) should be labeled suffering rather than sin. Suffering, he states, is “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” affects us. “True suffering,” he adds, “is not sin” (19). Persons experiencing same-sex attraction are not guilty of sin until they indulge the attraction, since the attraction is an aspect of their brokenness (fallen state), a source of suffering, not itself sin.

This is an appealing way of understanding sinful inclinations, and I’d like to believe it is correct. It certainly is easier to live with. However, an argument might be made that Scripture holds people morally culpable for their wrong desires, even without claiming that they possess conscious knowledge of ever having chosen to have wrong desires rather than right ones. The Bible teaches that the human heart is not merely “broken” in the morally neutral sense of dooming all people to suffer some wrong desires, but broken in a way that makes it “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). “Deceitful” and “wicked” are terms of moral culpability, not of guiltless suffering. Could it be that not just wrong actions but wrong desires, even when unindulged, are sins? I realize our ought-implies-can Pelagian culture finds this idea distasteful, and I admit to finding it very unpleasant myself, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Moreover, the deceitful wickedness of the human heart is so profound that none but God can know what that metaphorical spiritual organ is up to (Jeremiah 17:9-10), meaning that we really can’t trust that our desires and motives are what we think they are. If this is so, then reflection upon our own feelings and inclinations as we experience them, and on what others tell us about their feelings and inclinations as they experience them, is not an effective way to understand the nature, breadth, and depth of our sinfulness and the unique set of sins that most beset each of us. If the human heart is deceitful and wicked in such as way as to make it impossible for us to know rightly our own depravity, if only the mirror of Scripture can make it known to us, and then only through a long course of study and progressive sanctification under the Spirit’s guidance (James 1:23-5), then perhaps Hambrick is too willing to grant that what the same-sex attracted tell him about their experiences, and about what they would prefer, can be assumed accurate. Scripture, to the contrary, seems to indicate that no sinner can be trusted to accurately portray his sinfulness because no sinner accurately knows his sinfulness.

In spite of all this, I still judge the suffering-sin distinction a useful one. It certainly has validity at the level of conscious human awareness and experience, whether or not some of what we experience as suffering is in fact sin about which we have suppressed the truth (Romans 1:18) so effectively as to be consciously unaware of having done so. Since the suffering-not-sin hypothesis is at least plausible, and seems to square with the subjective impressions of same-sex-attracted persons with whom Hambrick has interacted, it may be worth adopting as a working assumption when interacting with the same-sex attracted.

Hambrick’s stumbling-block-removal chapter, which I criticized earlier, is not without worthwhile content. The “Doesn’t the Bible say not to associate with sinners?” section (43-5) is especially sound, and most of the chapter’s content, excepting the Romans-road-to-homosexuality discussion, is unobjectionable and could be helpful to some readers.

I’ve already noted reservations I have about how Hambrick bases his thinking on the experiences of the same-sex-attracted as the same-sex-attracted interpret them. His third chapter (47-62), which, as I’ve noted, focuses upon certain things he’s found commonly experienced among same-sex-attracted persons, still merits (critical) reading by those trying to better understand their same-sex-attracted acquaintances. In addition to the “it’s not primarily about sex” and “it isn’t chosen” ideas already discussed, the chapter discusses the prevalent experience the same-sex-attracted have of needing to keep their attraction secret. Though I can’t help wanting to push back against much in this very touchy-feely chapter (not all “political and ethical” discourse is “sloganeering” [62], for example), Hambrick does emphasize exactly the right truths at times: “Let’s talk in a way that reveals we all need the same thing: the grace of God to change our hearts, rearrange our expectation, and redeem our desires” and “without the gospel we are—all of us—dead in our sins and wayward desires” (61). Quite so.

Hambrick’s laudable goal in Do Ask, Do Tell…, to show individual Christians how to reach out effectively to individuals experiencing same-sex attraction, provides its most specific how-to advice in chapters four through six, as I’ve noted. Perhaps because focused on practical interaction specifics more than on doctrine and theory, these chapters contain more positive content than those preceding them. (I’ve found that counselors typically show much greater aptitude for practical matters than for matters of theory and principle, much as we who are more focused on theory and principle can be deficient in practical matters.) Though persons more in my emotional space than Hambrick’s, or who are more in my doctrinal or political spaces than Hambrick’s, are sure to find much in these chapters irritating, and to think much of it doubtful or wrong, there is probably enough sound and useful material to make the unpleasant reading worthwhile. I’ll here focus on highlighting some of this positive content. Since the basic focus of each chapter is evident from its title, and since I’ve noted the titles above, I won’t summarize each chapter, only point to positive content within.

Though his description of the five “milestones” he’s found common to the personal stories of the same-sex-attracted is full of the sort of subjective and emotional stuff I find irritating or hard to process, it is certainly true that one-on-one conversations will be more easily navigated if one gains an understanding of these milestones as the same-sex-attracted understand them, even if one believes that understanding may err. For your reference, the milestones discussed are these: initial experience of same-sex attraction (66-8); behavior in response to same-sex attraction (that is, behaviors exploring or experimentally indulging the attraction, but not to the point of establishing a same-sex sexual or “romantic” relationship) (69-71), asking and seeking to answer the question of identity (71-4), disclosing to one or more others that one experiences same-sex attraction (74-6), and establishing a same-sex (“romantic,” i.e., sexual) relationship (76-9). Some worthwhile statements in the course of this discussion include these: “The risk factor for God’s rejection is not primarily our sin but our attitude toward our sin. The refusal to repent…is a very dangerous place before God” (70-1); “Tragically, because of a widespread misunderstanding about the distinction between same-sex attraction and gay identity…, people often feel they must hide their [same-sex attraction] until they have the courage to ‘come out’ [commit to gay identity and the behaviors that go with it]” (75).

Also worthwhile is Hambrick’s description of the “four levels at which a topic can be discussed,” which levels, perspectives, or aspects of focus include facts (89-91), definitions (91-5), values (95-7), and action steps (97-9). Hypercritical sort that I am, I could fault Hambrick’s treatment in places, as I have in my marginal notes, but I agree with him that understanding which of these levels you and an interlocutor are discussing, and working to ensure both parties are discussing the same level at the same time, is valuable. Some worthwhile statements here include these: “a key gospel fact certainly worth discussing is the reality of God as creator—and the clear implication that creation, therefore, has a designed intent,” and that if that intent “does not include [same-sex attraction],” then it follows that same-sex attraction “is a product of the fall” that, “Like so many other areas of human nature,…represents a diversion from a natural disposition to one that is unnatural” (91); “gospel conversations at the Definitions level ultimately must focus on…whether God, as creator, gets to define the acceptable and unacceptable uses of everything he has made, including sex. Agreement here is the prerequisite for productive conversation at the Values and Action levels” (94); “Remember also that celibacy is not failure. It is, rather, the gift for which few volunteer” (99).

Finally, though most of Hambrick’s answers to hypothetical conversation partners seem very unnatural to me (perhaps due, again, to my residence in a different emotional space), and sometimes take for granted contemporary American values with no clear biblical justification (“This is an attempt to be an ‘openly Christian friend’ who neither hides nor imposes [his] personal beliefs. It tries to broaden the discussion to include suffering as well as sin, and recognizes how personal beliefs should never be imposed on others” [106]), they do have value, and most of the doctrinal statements in them are sound. (Note, by the way, that Hambrick’s American-values assertion that “personal beliefs should never be imposed on others,” in addition to allowing God’s own truth to be relegated to the “personal beliefs” realm, fails to explain what is meant by “imposed.” Since simply asserting views that others find disagreeable is now considered “hate speech” by some, this lack of explanation is dangerous.) A couple noteworthy statements are these: “I am a Christian. Among other things, that means I believe God created the world and had a design, an intention, for everything he created….I believe that when our bodies and souls resist God’s design this is sometimes sin…and sometimes suffering….But when we live outside God’s design, it always creates temptation and confusion” (105); “there is benefit to distinguishing between experience, identity, and behavior. ‘Same-sex attraction’ is an experience. ‘Gay’ is a matter of identity, and in many cases that identity implies various forms of physical affection, which are obviously behaviors” (111), which nicely encapsulates a fundamental categorization employed by Do Ask, Do Tell.…

Overall, then, in light of such worthwhile material as the book contains, and in recognition of Hambrick’s commendable motivation for writing it, I can give this book a mild recommendation for readers willing to read it carefully and critically in order to apply it selectively.

This review may also appear, at least for a time, less nicely formatted and perhaps abridged, on Amazon and, perhaps (and perhaps more abridged), on GoodReads, and maybe even elsewhere.

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