The following article is written in the form of a letter to a young seminarian struggling with same sex attraction. While based on many similar conversations, both Thomas, and the correspondence mentioned here are entirely fictional. This format was chosen in order to frame the discussion within a pastoral setting.
I enjoyed our conversation the other day, and was delighted to receive your letter. I was honored that you felt free to share with me your struggles with same-sex attraction. The issues you raised are indeed worth thinking through carefully. You are quite right to be frustrated when friends in your seminary classes treat the issue only as a juicy controversy into which they can sink their theological teeth. For you, and so many like you, it is a profoundly personal matter demanding pastoral sensitivity and the kind of careful nuance often missing in online forums and classroom debates. No doubt the careless ways some have spoken about your struggle has been deeply wounding, calculated more to signal to their ecclesiastical tribe where they stand than to offer any real help or guidance to those, like you, who are looking for it. For that, Thomas, I am truly sorry. I’m sure you’d agree that navigating faithfully the theological and pastoral complexities involved has never been a more urgent need.
In your letter you suggest three major areas for our discussion, and I am happy to follow your outline. First, there is the question of sexual orientation. We already agree that homosexual sexual behaviors are prohibited by the biblical teaching so we needn’t take time on that here. But how should we think about sexual orientation, since the category itself doesn’t line up precisely with biblical categories? Secondly, you were asking about the distinction between temptation and sin. You hear from some that being tempted by homosexual sexual sin isn’t sinful in itself. Jesus was tempted and didn’t sin, after all. Thirdly, you raise the issue of identity. May a Christian identify himself or herself as a Gay Christian? How should we respond when someone does?
Concerning sexual orientation, you are right to highlight the fact that sexual orientation is a category entirely foreign to the Bible. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be rejected, of course. But it does mean that we should be careful to define our terms so that we can apply biblical truth where it can shed most light. The American Psychiatric Association defines sexual orientation as,
“an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes. Sexual orientation also refers to a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviors, and membership in a community of others who share those attractions.”
The APA further argues that we should distinguish sexual orientation from biological sex- which refers to the biological, anatomical, and chromosomal features associated with being male and female; and from gender identity- which refers to the psychological sense of being male or female, and increasingly, other non-binary gender identities. Thus, according to this taxonomy a person can be biologically male, identify as a female, and have a homosexual or heterosexual or bisexual sexual orientation. Some further insist that none of these categories are stable. They are fluid and malleable. As you will immediately appreciate, this raises an enormously complicated array of pastoral and theological issues, and the consequent confusion that we find in the church at the moment concerning them isn’t really surprising.
So, for the sake of brevity, perhaps the way to proceed is for me to set out my convictions on some of these categories. First of all, the Bible is clear that there are only two sexes. Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” This fundamental binary is non-negotiable. Our biological sex is not plastic. It is a given, and cannot be changed, contemporary assertions to the contrary notwithstanding. Secondly, gender identity- a subject to which we will doubtless need to return- ought to reflect the biological sex God has assigned to us. However, that a person can feel like their gender identity and their biological sex do not correlate is, in my view, entirely consistent with the biblical data about the effects of the Fall. This is what theologians sometimes call the noetic effects of sin- the effects of sin on our minds. Paul, in Romans 1:18-32, demonstrates that sin has distorted our thinking towards God, and towards one another, and thus necessarily also with regards to oneself (and you will notice that Paul particularly highlights the sexual implications of those effects in the course of his discussion as clear evidence of sin’s debasing power).
But this question of sexual orientation adds another layer of complexity. We readily concede that it is not usually a chosen condition. The suggestion that those who identify as LGBTQI+ merely decided to live that way is as crass as it is naive. But if we concede the un-chosen, often unwanted, nature of same-sex attraction, does that mean that sexual orientation is morally neutral? Or is it a negative thing, an aspect of the Fall, an artifact of the curse, though still not itself fully sinful? Or is it in fact part of what it means to bear the image of God, something redeemable, a path of valid Christian discipleship- even something that will persist into the new heavens and the new earth at the end of the age? All these are positions adopted by some within the current debate.
How shall we find our way through this morass? Since sexual orientation is a question of the way we are wired, let me start by summarizing some of the biblical teaching on the constitution of a human being. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, were made in the image of God in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness (Col. 3:10, Eph. 4:24). There was nothing in them that inclined to sin. There was no bias that made them want sin. Their sin was a freely chosen act of willful rebellion. Since then, however, the human heart has fallen from its native freedom and is averse to righteousness. Given that God made man male and female in his image, commanding them to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:27, 28), the possibility of procreation is basic to God’s original design. Eve was created to be a “helper fit for” Adam (Gen. 2:18). There is a fundamental compatibility between man and woman in God’s plan, with the result that, “a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). In homosexual relationships there is no complementarity, no possibility of procreation, and there can be no one flesh union.
Beyond all doubt, this means that the desire for intercourse with persons of the same sex is not according to the plan and design of God. It is disordered. On this, Thomas, I know we both agree. But is it sinful? One answer, provided by the Roman Catholic Church, teaches a doctrine of concupiscence in which the base instincts of Adam’s flesh was made with a natural liability to sin. A special grace, sometimes called the donum superadditum, was given to him, by which this inherent liability was wholly restrained that he might walk in original righteousness. This grace was lost at the Fall, however, and so the concupiscence of our nature has free reign. Importantly, in Roman Catholic thought this concupiscence is not itself sin, but only becomes sin when consented to by the will. What has been fascinating to me to watch is how far many Protestant Christians in the evangelical tradition, while avoiding much that is confused in the Roman Catholic teaching on this point, nevertheless join them in affirming that the orientation of the heart towards sin (concupiscence) is not sin. Sin, for many contemporary evangelicals, is only culpable when it is assented to by the will. To put it crudely, sin is only sin when we do it.
The Reformed have typically agreed that the concupiscence of the flesh, this pre-behavioral liability to sin, is indeed an orientation of our hearts that inclines us to an entire array of wickedness. Nevertheless they differed by asserting that it arises not only from sin, as a mere consequence, but is itself sin. We are not just broken. We are bad. The Westminster Confession of Faith, in chapter 6, paragraph 5, speaking of the presence of sin in our lives, puts it this way:
“This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be, through Christ, pardoned, and mortified; yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin.”
The corruption of nature and all its motions are “truly and properly sin”. Not just “of sin”, or a consequence of sin, or in some way associated with sin, but themselves truly and properly sin. Here is the classical Reformed view of the biases of the heart towards that which God condemns. The bias toward sin, we say, is sin. As Herman Bavinck put it:
“The Reformers further taught that from its very first motion this concupiscence was also sin: it does not first become sin when the will has consented to it, but it is sin in itself, not only as formed, therefore, but already as unformed.”
In my next letter, Thomas, I will try to address some of the Biblical data as it touches on these points. For now, let me sum up my argument thus far. The scriptures are clear about the binary character of gender. We are made in God’s image, male and female. Sexual compatibility and complementarity is fundamental to God’s design. There is no way to assert a sexual orientation attracted to a person of the same sex as anything other than an effect of the Fall. This orientation of the heart, we believe is indistinguishable from the concupiscence of nature, so hotly debated at the Reformation. The fact is, that this concupiscence inclines my heart and yours towards all manner of sin, much of which we should freely acknowledge we have not chosen, yet towards which we are nevertheless drawn and attracted. The orientation of the heart that desires sex with a person of the same gender is one species of this larger fallen reality that plagues every human heart. More than that, with the classical Reformed tradition, we believe that the bias of the heart towards sin, even prior to any acts of the will, is sinful and guilty before God, and must be confessed and repented of. It is now almost a cliché in Reformed circles to say it, but it’s worth repeating here again: we are not sinners merely because we sin. We sin because we are sinners. Sin is a problem that goes all the way to the roots of who we are.
That may, at first, seem hard, Thomas. But let me close with this. When someone comes to me and says that they are struggling with their sexual orientation, or that they self-identify somewhere on the LGBTQI+ spectrum, my theology allows me to say that such a person is neither a hero- as our culture often portrays them- nor a monster- as many in the church have sometimes implied, by their recoil and hostility. Instead, I can say that this troubling experience of un-chosen desires is simply part of our fallen-ness and our sin. I too struggle with all sorts of un-chosen and unwanted impulses to sin. The orientation of my heart inclines to all sorts of wickedness too, though mine is different to theirs. But the remedy for us both is the same. I must repent, not only of what I want, and do, and say, but of who and what I am. I must turn to Christ, die to myself, and find mercy and grace to live in new obedience in Him alone. There is nothing trite or simplistic about that. Doing so will always be hard and slow and lifelong. But this is still the path of godliness.
Thomas, you might well ask if this approach means that a same-sex attracted Christian like you can never be free of guilt of shame? Is it really my counsel to you that you must alwaysbe confessing and repenting? Is there no space to rest, no peace, no place simply to be? To this I’d say that indeed we mustalways be confessing and repenting. Together confession and repentance are the lifelong posture of the believing heart, and not merely the work of a moment. We must always be turning from sin and self to the Savior. We must always be grieving for sin and mourning for the ways our hearts run after idols. But this is not a counsel of despair, but of hope. A life of repentance is a life of rest. A life of confession is a life being conformed to the image of Christ. A penitent heart is a heart that has learned to run from all that undermines its peace to the only One who gives peace to us as a free gift (Matt.11:28). When we begin truly to turn from sin, including the sin of same sex attraction, to Jesus, looking into his face, as it were, we see only love and pardon, never dismissal or disdain. And the more we look there, the more eagerly we will want to. It is not repentance that brings shame, but sin. Repentance brings peace.
I look forward to hearing from you again soon, Thomas, as we continue what I hope will be a fruitful conversation on this important topic. In the meantime, remember that as you struggle on, your temptations are not uncommon or weird (that’s what Paul says in 1 Cor. 10:13, isn’t it?). Your sin doesn’t make you special, any more than mine does me. But where sin abounds grace abounds all the more. There is help for the chief of sinners in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and I commend you to Him. Please know that I will be praying for you as you continue to fight the good fight of faith, and I would be glad if you would please remember me in yours as I fight on too.
“Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality,” http://www.apa.org/topics/lgbt/orientation.aspx, accessed December 17, 2015.
“Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin—an inclination to evil that is called “concupiscence.”The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition, 2.7.III, 405,
“This concupiscence, which the apostle sometimes calls sin, the holy Synod declares that the Catholic Church has never understood it to be called sin, as being truly and properly sin in those born again, but because it is of sin, and inclines to sin.” The Council of Trent, V.I.5, (http://www.thecounciloftrent.com/ch5.htmaccessed 9.4.18)
Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, John Bolt, ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006)98