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