A Three-Tiered Framework for Thinking About Sexuality

At Spiritual Friendship and in other venues, we often discuss questions of “disorder” and “sin” relating to sexuality (for a few examples, see here, here, here, here, and here). Others have written about similar topics, such as Denny Burk’s exploration of whether same-sex attraction is sinful.

In all these writings, I see several different categorizations that are in play. I think it is helpful, for the purposes of discussion, to explicitly consider three ways to categorize aspects of sexuality: not disordered, disordered but not sinful, and sinful. Not everyone will agree with me on which aspects of sexuality fit into which category, but I think that explicitly considering these categories is a helpful framework for discussion. I will give a brief description of each, as well as some of my current understanding of what fits in each category and how others disagree with me.

Not Disordered. From a Christian perspective, a component of sexuality is not disordered if it lines up with God’s creative intent or helps with virtuous living. For example, the drive for a married person to have sex with his or her opposite-sex spouse is generally not disordered. Those who affirm gay marriage as a legitimate form of Christian marriage would disagree with me about whether the drive to have sex with a same-sex spouse is in this category.

I believe, however, that even parts of a distinctly homosexual or bisexual orientation can be in this category, as explored by Wesley Hill, Melinda Selmys, Nick Roen, and myself. Insofar as my orientation drives me towards deeper friendships with other men, or to reach out without sexual intent, I believe that it is not disordered.

Disordered But Not Sinful. When we think about living in a fallen world, we usually do recognize that some things are disordered but not sinful. For example, genetic diseases that reduce a person’s quality of life are in this category. My current understanding is that sin is a disease of the will. Insofar as something is not willful, it is not sinful. (I do believe in the doctrine of original sin, that my will was bent towards sin even before I had the opportunity to exercise it, but I still see this as a statement about my will.)

Sexual attraction has a significant biological component. For example, hormones are often released involuntarily upon seeing an attractive person. When this basic drive is oriented towards people we cannot morally have sex with, it is disordered. This disorder affects straight people just as much as anyone else. For example, a married man will often experience involuntary attraction to women other than his wife.

However, insofar as we are only considering the basic biological drive, I don’t see how this is any different from the physical hunger Jesus must have felt after fasting for 40 days in preparation for being tempted by Satan. I believe that because Jesus was tempted in this way and yet did not sin, one can experience disordered sexual attraction without sin. This doesn’t mean my response is usually free of sin, but I cannot reconcile an orthodox Christology with the viewpoint that sexual attraction to the wrong person is inherently sinful, despite my belief that it is disordered. Some Christians like Denny Burk and James Brownson disagree, believing that sexual attraction falls under the scope of “desire” that is addressed in Scripture as sinful when not towards the appropriate person.

Sinful. Some parts of our sexuality extend beyond disorder to the point of sin. According to the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:28, sin starts even before it is expressed in the form of behavior: if I look at someone in order to lust after him or her, that is sinful. If I am ungrateful for my state in life or objectify another person, that is sinful. And of course, if I were to actually have sex with someone other than my spouse, that would be sinful. Much of the debate around gay marriage within Christianity focuses on whether sexual relations with a same-sex spouse are sinful.

Concluding Thoughts. Here I have only provided a basic outline of the categories I use to think about sexuality, but I think that talking in terms of these categories can lead to clearer thinking about sexuality.

Jeremy EricksonJeremy Erickson is a software engineer in Wisconsin. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

32 thoughts on “A Three-Tiered Framework for Thinking About Sexuality

  1. Jeremy, I appreciate what you are trying to do to clarify the discussion, but I don’t agree with your notion of “disordered”. You use the case of a married man being attracted to a woman who is not his wife as an example of a disordered but not sinful attraction. But it seems to me that sexual attraction on an involuntary, sub-conscious or hormonal level is pre-moral in the strictest sense. On that level, not only can we not talk about sin, but we can’t even talk about order or disorder. People experience all kinds of sexual attractions and on one level they are neither good not bad, but on another level they ARE good. We are created with a multivalent and multilayered sexuality that touches every part of our being. It is good. All of it is good.

    It is natural and good for a man to be attracted to a woman, even one who is not his wife. I think it is natural and good to feel attraction to someone of the same sex. The question is how our sexuality gets expressed. Order and disorder comes in at the level of obsessions, addictions, emotional imbalance. Such things might be beyond our ability to completely control, and so not sinful, but neither are they totally involuntary.

    Your Christological point is interesting. Jesus was without sin, but was he without disorder? Under your definition, clearly he wasn’t and under mine…? A discussion for another time.

    • Since the point of my post was to present a framework for having this sort of discussion, I do think this can be a fruitful conversation. The particular reasoning I provided was mostly intended to provide an example, in addition to showing my current thinking. I could certainly be wrong about details such as precisely where disorder enters the picture. I primarily wanted to present the framework for having these discussions with more clarity. It does look like we have some disagreements about where disorder enters the picture.

      I tend to see disordered sexual attraction as a normal part of living in a fallen world. We are tempted to sin because we live in a fallen world, and the Fall affects even our biology. I understand Hebrews 4:15 to teach that Jesus did experience these types of disorder, but (unlike us) responded in a morally perfect manner. If there’s anything heretical about my understanding, I most certainly want to be corrected, but as far as I can tell this is the teaching of Scripture.

      • Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I certainly don’t think your position deviates from scriptural teaching. Presenting a framework for discussion is valuable precisely because it causes people to reevaluate their own thinking in reference to the framework. I hadn’t really thought about what we mean by “disorder” in this context before I read your post. To me, this is where our thinking needs further refinement.

    • The claim that the exegesis hangs on a common preposition is inaccurate. The translation “in order to” is, in fact, based on the broader construction of the phrase. Matthew 5:28 uses “pros to” plus the infinitive “to desire.” This particular construction most often includes intention “in order to.”

      In the context of the book of Matthew, intention is certainly implied in other places in which Matthew uses “pros to” plus an infinitive.

      Further, has Matthew (assuming he is translating Christ’s sermon into Greek) or Christ (assuming He preached the sermon in Greek) wanted to refer to attraction rather than intentionality, there were two simpler and more common ways to express that. One would have been a simple “kai” (and) clause. “looks at a woman and lusts”. The other way would have been to use a participle “anyone who, looking at a woman, lusts…..”

      The fact that this verse avoids two easier and far more common constructions in favor of a rarer construction that generally indicates intention would argue that Christ is condemning specifically intentional sexual thoughts and not the mere experience of temptation.

      Or, as Luther said when he preached the sermon on Jacob wrestling with God, “we can not keep the birds from flying over our heads but we need not let them make a nest in our hair.”

      • Not sure what allows you to say that this ‘most often includes intention, in order to’ or that Matthew ‘certainly implied intention.’ I’ve been teaching Greek for decades and I’d never dare be this precise; but you made me doubt, do I did open Liddell and Scott’s lexicon and saw that, followed by an infinitive (that is to say without any possibility of determining the case the preposition refers to) pros can mean just about anything relating to motion. The only examples given including an infinitive are both taken from Herodotus and translated ‘in reference to, according to,’ or ‘with.’ Nowhere however is it translated ‘in order to’ (and they give dozens of examples) except possibly one periphrastic use in Euripides: ‘for the sake of.’ All in all, as I said, an awful lot depends on you interpreting this text in a very precise sense which the text will simply not bear.

      • Sorry, I was a bit unclear. I meant in the New Testament.

        I was unable to find the work I did on this before so I only had time to reconstruct the first 3 gospels.

        The other times the pros to + infinitive appears in Matthew are:

        6:1 and 23:5 in which people do works “to be seen by men.”

        13:30 in which the servant gather the weeks and tie them in bundle in order to burn them

        26:12 when Mary pours oil on Jesus “to prepare him for burial.”

        In Mark it is found once, in 13:22 where false prophets do signs “to deceive the elect.”

        and in Luke it is found once in 18:1 in which Christ tells a parable to the effect that they “should pray and not become discouraged.”

        Sorry, didn’t have time to redo the work on John or the letters of Paul. But, in the first three Gospels, the construction is used pretty consistently to indicate that the action in the infinitive is the purpose or intention of the main verb.

        so are you really going to condemn a teen for experiencing sexual temptation based on Matthew 5:28, when all reasonable indications are that Christ is condemning intentional lusting, not merely the experience of involuntary temptation?

      • Heck, Matt, I’d never condemn a teen for experiencing such attractions. I don’t even think they’re sinful, I merely disagree with the notion that urges become sinful only when the will is engaged. This being said, the quotes you mentioned all seem to denote intention, now that’s interesting.

      • Lorenzo, I’d be curious to understand more about your actual beliefs. You continue to insist that Jesus is condemning the urges a married man feels towards women other than his wife, but that neither premarital nor same-sex urges are sinful. Nonetheless, you say that you strongly disagree with Brownson, who uses your shared understanding of Matthew 5:28 as the basis for an argument that same-sex sex is not sinful.

        You haven’t actually contradicted yourself, but what you say does strike me as a perhaps unusual view that I’d like to understand better. Do you disagree with the words attributed to Jesus in Matthew, or do you believe that attractions to people of the opposite sex (other than one’s spouse) become sinful upon marriage, or what?

      • @Lorenzo

        I’m sorry for accusing you of condemning a teen. I am just a littlesensitive about this verse because it is the current “clobber verse” against homosexuals in my denomination. When the boy scouts allowed kids with homosexual orientation to join, pastors were constantly quoting this verse to “prove” that “attractions are just as sinful as behavior” and it escalated from there. So this verse is kind of a touchy one for me because it is used so often to condemn orientation.

      • @Jeremy. I’d say that erotic temptations, whatever the gender of their object are sinful in exactly the same way. I’d say I view all sex as tricky as it almost invariably leads to a deep attachment to created, ever-changing and perishable realities. You could say I’m with the Greek and Oriental Fathers (and the Buddha, I guess) on the matter inasmuch as I find their analysis of the mechanics of temptation compelling. If you open the Philokalia pretty much anywhere, you’ll see what I mean, but Mark the Ascetic’ s On the Spiritual Law, 138ff is a classic, as is John Climacus’ Ladder, step 15. The Western, largely Augustinian notion that things only get problematic when the will is involve seems rather naive to me, and does not square neatly with modern psychological insights either.

    • Because I was primarily trying to present a framework for discussion, using my own current views primarily as examples, I was not attempting to provide a detailed exegesis of Matthew 5:28. In fact, I am not a biblical scholar and have never studied Greek, so I am not the proper person to make that kind of case.

      I did link “in order to” to a post by a friend of mine who is much more knowledgeable in these matters than I am. He in fact does directly argue that the prohibition of coveting is in view, and additionally provides an argument that “in order to” is the correct interpretation.

      The merits of this particular exegetical argument were not the primary focus of my post. I still maintain that the sin of coveting involves the will in a way that sexual attraction does not always, as I discussed more within my discussion of “Disordered But Not Sinful.” While the details of one point I made could be questioned exegetically, I don’t think this significantly affects the larger thrust of what I said.

  2. Don’t get me wrong, Mr Erickson, I don’t even believe that same sex desire is sinful, but the commandment itself, which Jesus strengthens, is to not ‘covet’ or ‘desire’ in the Septuagint’s Greek, something over which the will has little hold. Whatever the purpose (in order to) of that desire might be, it is condemned wholesale. It seems to me that if its object is wrong, the desire itself must be purged or purified. I cannot see how it can be morally neutral, but then again, Roman Catholic morality on the matter makes next to no sense to me.

  3. I’m just trying to understand you, how is sexual attraction a case apart? How different is it from violent urges, say, or spiteful thoughts? Whether you assent to them or not, whether you act on them or not, would you declare them morally neutral even though they are unwilled?

    • I tend to take the same perspective that Jason Staples argues in his post: “In modern terms, it’s the difference between seeing a woman and being attracted to her—a natural part of the God-created appetite and a good indicator that one is alive—and actually considering or seeking an illicit activity. In fact, in modern terms, the saying could be taken like this: ‘Obviously, having extramarital sex is wrong, but the moment you decide to start down that path, adultery is already in your heart.'”

      I know that at least the English word “desire” has multiple shades of meaning. Basic biological impulses could be described by “desire,” but I understand the commandment not to “covet” as indicating a consideration that involves the will.

      Insofar as something like violent urges are involuntary, I would tend to see them the same way. Sin enters the moment the will is engaged, but disorder exists before then.

      Your argument also reminds me of Brownson’s. My big problem with his argument is that his logic necessarily implies that adultery is morally acceptable. Brownson doesn’t take his argument there, but I can’t see that as anything other than an inconsistency. The vast majority of married people continue to experience sexual attraction to people other than their spouses, just as gay people continue to be attracted to others of the same sex. So I’m confident that Brownson’s logic goes wrong somewhere, and I’m pretty sure the flaw is in equating sexual attraction with sinful desire.

      • I’d strongly disagree with Brownson too. “Basic biological impulses could be described by desire,” well, yes, they very generally are. You may very well say that you understand the commandment not to “covet” as indicating a consideration that involves the will, but why?

      • My basic reason why is pretty simple: it’s a commandment. As far as I understand, the whole concept of a commandment necessarily involves engaging the will. To say otherwise seems nonsensical to me.

      • I did not say that commandments involve nothing more than the will, but that they necessarily do involve the will. Love of God and neighbor may be seen as much more than an act of the will. However, I don’t believe that the form of love referenced can be less than, or independent of, an act of the will. Our heart is formed in large part by our willful decisions.

        You have been claiming that desires totally independent of the will are referenced as sinful, which makes no sense to me as the implication of a command.

      • @Rosa. How then do you differentiate between willing and desiring in the first place? The man who desires a woman other than his wife ‘wants’ her, ‘desires’ her. Willing is wanting too, only its origins are conscious.

      • Hi Lorenzo!

        I don’t think the difference is between willing and desiring. The difference is between loving and desiring. Loving is always and act of the will. Desiring is instinctual although the will can assent to the desire. The will can also enable the desire.

  4. May I also suggest that “disordered” does not simply mean “attracted to the wrong thing” as in “male vs female.” When we speak of disordered today we tend to think of attraction to the opposite sex as “natural” and, therefore, “not disordered.” And, by extension, therefore, attraction to the same sex is seen as “disordered” and “unnatural.”

    But the early Christians had another meaning for “disordered” as well. Augustine, for instance, talked about a disordering of desires, meaning that love of God is to come first, followed by a love of others, a love for God’s creation, etc. The disordering of desires occurred when one love was moved to a higher level in the hierarchy of desire than God had created it for. When one, for instance, loved one’s wife more than God, this was a “disordered” desire.

    This is also closer to the meaning of covet “chamad” in the OT. It was not that what was desired was bad in itself. Nor that the desiring of it was bad. But that one allowed the desire of a thing to become stronger than one’s desire to obey God. There was nothing wrong with desiring a neighbor’s field, for instance, if one was willing to purchase it legally and fairly. But when Ahab wanted Naboth’s vineyard to the point of sleeplessness, his desire becomes chamad (coveting)

    When it comes to sexuality, a desire may be disordered in the sense that the object of sexual desire is something that God did not intend to be used to fulfill sexual desire (attraction to those of the same sex, for instance). But it can equally mean that the desire has been moved to the wrong place in the hierarchy of desires (desiring a woman more than desiring obedience to God). Both forms are equally disordered.

    It is a modern fallacy that sees one form of disorder as being worse than the other, or even more “unnatural.” In fact, both the early Church and the Hebrew Rabbis tended to include many forms of heterosexual behavior and desire in the same category of “unnatural” as homosexual. Adultery, promiscuity, prostitution and, even, any form of sex within marriage that intentionally prevented procreation were all considered “unnatural.”

    I say this because I think it is unfair to heterosexual people when we allow them to think of their temptations as natural compared to our homosexual temptations. It allows them to excuse their desires as “normal precursors to marriage,” rather than seeing them as desires and temptations which call the sinner to flee to the forgiveness of Christ in repentance and faith. Frankly, I think the Church needs to do a lot more “speaking the truth in love” to straight people and to confront them with the fact that their desire is every bit as disordered as gay desires so that they may truly repent and believe and be offered the gracious forgiveness of Christ.

      • I was being partly tongue in cheek – but not entirely.

        An example of what I mean: A few months ago I was playing an online game in a group. One of the players was a 22 year old young man who is a Christian. He made very negative comment about “homosexuals.” Less than 10 minutes later he made some comment about having had sex with his girlfriend. It was just an offhand comment. But it was apparent from the way he put it that he did not consider having premarital sex to be particularly sinful. In his mind it was OK because they were going to get married anyway. (They broke up 2 weeks later, by the way). The current debate over homosexuality had created in him an attitude in which a person who experienced temptation toward their own sex was far more sinful than himself, though he was actually engaging in physical breaking of the commandment.

        Or there was the 35 year old married man who excused his use of pornography a “research so I can find ways to better please my wife sexually.”

        The fact is that the Bible only holds up sexual desire as good and beautiful when it flows from within marriage. It never pictures sexual desire prior to marriage as being a good or holy thing. Isaac and Rebekah’s love is glorified although they had never met before their marriage was arranged. The Song of Solomon is a glorious celebration of sexuality. But it takes place between 2 people who are engaged and, therefore, under Israelite law, already married. Ruth and Boaz restrain themselves and are careful to follow the laws about marriage (no, Ruth uncovering Boaz’s feet is not a euphemism for sex – that interpretation is based on some pretty flaky reasoning).

        Meanwhile, when sexual desire precedes marriage and forms the foundation for marriage, disaster often happens. i.e. Jacob and his wives. David and Bathsheba. Solomon and his wives etc.

        Our modern society in which “falling in love” is seen as a necessary and primary precursor to marriage has produced a nation rife with divorce and single parent children.

        So basically what I am saying is that our misconceptions over the place of sexuality, especially the debate over homosexuality, has blinded us to the fact that heterosexual desire in the wrong place, at the wrong time and in the wrong order of the hierarchy of loves is just as unnatural as homosexual. And this has been as unfair and damaging to heterosexuals as to homosexuals.

  5. I now know I don’t agree with you. There is nothing wrong with sexual desire preceding marriage, as long as one can control such desired and consummate it in marriage.

    • Just to be clear, if by “wrong” you mean “a sin” then I agree with you. Desire can be a temptation or it can cross the line to sin. (As the discussion above on Matthew 5:28)

      But any sexual desire for a person to which one is not married is most definitely a temptation. Is it sinful to experience a temptation? No. Adam and Eve experienced temptation in the garden prior to the actual fall. Christ Himself experienced temptation. And we must presume that included sexual temptation because otherwise we deny the resurrection.

      But we have taken sexual temptation and, for the homosexual, have called it a sin and condemned those experience to a lesser place within the body of Christ, if we include them at all.

      Meanwhile, for the heterosexual we have taken temptation and glorified it, making movies about it, songs that literally worship it, and writing books in which love solves all things and overcomes all barriers. nearly every pop song is about sexual desire or “falling in love.” we even send out kids out on dates at the most vulnerable time in life when their hormones are 5-6 times normal to spend time alone with members of the opposite sex while expecting them to refrain from intercourse as we encourage them to “find the one” And then we can’t figure out why our teens get pregnant and pass around a high percentage of STDs.

      Can you honestly say this is not disordered?

      no there is nothing wrong with being tempted. there is a great deal wrong with turning a temptation into a virtue.

      • As you say there is nothing wrong with temptation. It can lead to sin but it can make us stronger too. There is nothing disordered about a man desiring a woman or a woman desiring a man if they are not married but in a relationship with each other. They might be trying to figure out if they should marry. This is call courtship and it is good and natural.

        In regards to society yes, I agree it has made this natural wholesome attraction/desire between man and woman a disordered thing because society has reached a point where it cannot imaging the desire without pre-marital sex. So sad. Everyone loses.

  6. oops “resurrection” should have been “incarnation.” Although he was God, as a man, Christ also had hormones and to say he did not experience sexual temptation would be to deny his humanity.

  7. Pingback: The Line Dividing Ordered and Disordered | Spiritual Friendship

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