Panel on the Sinfulness, or Otherwise, of “Sexual Orientation”

This past weekend I was in San Diego for the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, where I presented a paper-length version of my “Is Being Gay Sanctifiable?” post from a few months ago. I’m not quite ready to post the paper here, since I think there are various weaknesses and not-quite-clear arguments in it, but I hope to revisit the main ideas at some point in the future. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, here’s a remarkably clear summary of the panel discussion from the UK pastor and blogger Andrew Wilson:

On the first afternoon we launched straight into it — why waste time? — with a series of papers and discussions on sexual orientation. The purpose of the session, as best as I can summarise it, was to ask and discuss the question: is same-sex orientation sinful? Denny [Burk, of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary,] began with the point that desires can be sinful. Jesus speaks of the desire (epithumeō) for a married woman as adultery (Matt 5:28). So the question is: what makes a desire sinful? His argument was that whether a desire is sinful or not relates, not to its intensity (how strongly or not it is felt), nor to its intentionality (how far we intend or control it), but to its object (whether or not it is directed towards something that honours God): “the only sex desire that honours God is that which falls within the covenant of marriage.” In other words, all desires which are directed towards things which God prohibits are sinful.

The obvious objection to this, of course, is this: surely temptation isn’t sinful, since Jesus was tempted (Heb 4:15)? Denny’s response was twofold. First, clearly, not all temptation is necessarily sinful, as Jesus demonstrates. But second, the temptation experienced by Jesus is of a different sort to that which we experience, because he was tempted specifically with regard to his sufferings, and did not desire things which were contrary to his Father’s will. The temptations we experience are not morally neutral; James 1:13-15 reveals a desire which is directed towards evil. Thus the difference between the trials and temptations we experience and those experienced by Jesus is that his were never sinful, and ours are; Jesus faced trials externally, from outside, but we face temptations and desires internally, from within, and are culpable for them. Given this, and given that what makes a temptation sinful is its directedness towards sinful ends, we should say yes: same-sex desires are sinful.

Preston Sprinkle [of Eternity Bible College and author of a forthcoming book on homosexuality] (who, by the way, is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet) came next, on “Orientation in Paul’s World.” One of the most common points made in the sexuality debate is that Paul had no concept of orientation. Thus James Brownson, representatively, of Paul: “the notion of sexual orientation was absent.” Some contemporary writers, in response, argue that it doesn’t matter, and some argue that it’s historically inaccurate: “I’m going to argue that it’s historically inaccurate, and it doesn’t matter.” The ancient worldview was more to do with manliness and womanliness than with homosexuality and heterosexuality, but they still believed in a fixed desire for same-sex sexual relations, and sought to explain it in various ways (as Preston shows in a forthcoming Bulletin of Biblical Research article). “What does this mean for Romans 1? Well: not much. Sorry to waste your time.”

So: is same-sex orientation sinful? Maybe not. When a same-sex attracted person describes their orientation, they don’t mean the same thing as what Romans 1 means by “desires”. If I describe myself as heterosexual, I don’t mean that I am constantly lusting after every woman I meet; I mean that my sexual desires, when they surface, occur with respect to people of the opposite sex (and thus I am heterosexual when I’m asleep, even if I am not thinking about sex at all). So orientation, in the common way of speaking about it, and “desires” in the Romans 1 sense, are not the same thing. (Also: with respect to Denny’s argument from James 1, the picture is of desire giving birth to sin, but that is not to equate desire with sin. A woman gives birth to a child, but is not the child; similarly, desire gives birth to sin, but it not itself sin.)

The third paper was from Wesley Hill, author of the excellent Washed and Waiting, on “Is Being Gay Sanctifiable?” The question, as Wesley framed it, is: What is the most appropriate response to a lifelong attraction to someone of the same sex? Is Paul condemning what we today call same-sex sexual behaviour, or is he also condemning the human experience of having a same-sex orientation? Denny’s argument, implicitly, is:

  1. Same-sex attraction is a desire for sex with persons of the same sex.
    2. Desire for something God forbids is morally blameworthy.
    3. Therefore same-sex attraction is morally blameworthy.

But both of these premises need to be thought through. As true as #2 is, all human desires are fallen, not just homosexual ones; an Augustinian perspective on human sexuality, and the possibility of (for instance) lust within marriage, is badly needed here, and Steve Holmes makes a superb argument to this effect. And there are also problems with #1, which assumes that same-sex orientation is always essentially a sexual phenomenon, in the face of the way many same-sex attracted people describe their experience. Is it not possible to see celibate, same-sex, intimate friendship as redemptive? As a reordering of desire? So while we cannot see desire for a moral evil as redemptive, and hence cannot see the desire for sex with someone of the same sex as morally neutral, there may be other aspects of my orientation which can be reordered for morally good things.

As Andrew notes, much of my argument—about the fallenness and corruption of all human sexual desire, east of Eden—is dependent on Steve Holmes’ work in this area, which I’ve recommended here before and will recommend again now. Here’s a taste:

[T]he church is able to truly welcome all people only because it refuses to affirm anyone’s identity or behaviour. All, without exception, who come under gospel preaching are called to faith and baptism — to death and burial and to rebirth and new life. We are all without exception, called to Christian discipleship, to practices of asceticism that will re-order and re-direct our desires, often painfully, in order to make us more adequately human. A church that says to some fallen human beings that they have no need of renewal and remaking in the image of Christ, is necessarily apostate… I worry that, at its worst, the debate over sexuality in the modern Western church is between churches that say ‘if you are straight you have no need to re-order your erotic desires’ and churches that say ‘you have no need to re-order your erotic desires if you are gay or lesbian either’; these positions are equally wrong; they are both simple failures to believe the gospel; they have nothing in common with the true call to Christian discipleship.

As I say, I hope to revisit this particular paper I gave, and certainly the main questions and lines of argument in it, at some point. But for now, I thought you all might be interested in this summary.

20 thoughts on “Panel on the Sinfulness, or Otherwise, of “Sexual Orientation”

  1. Did no one find fault at all with the claim that “the temptation experienced by Jesus is of a different sort to that which we experience”? I read that and a red flag immediately went off in my head. It seems to contradict St. Paul’s words in Heb. 4:15. How can “in every respect has been tempted as we are” come to mean that this temptation was “of a different sort to that which we experience”?

    I guess I’m asking, did no one hear that and say, “Wait a minute–that can’t be right.”

    • I wasn’t thinking of that verse specifically, but I have to agree with you. Also, I see at least two problems with the statement that Jesus “did not desire things which were contrary to his Father’s will.” First, James 4:17 says that if we know the right thing to do but don’t do it that’s sin. God’s will for Jesus was the right thing to do. My second problem is when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness and Satan tempted Him to bow down to him to gain control of all the world. According to Denny’s argument as I see it, there are only two explanations for what could be occurring. One is that Jesus had no desire to bow down to Satan. If this was the case, it doesn’t really seem like He was tempted. The remaining argument is that Jesus did desire to take Satan’s offer but didn’t contradict the Father’s will in that. I do think there is a small loophole here. It’s conceivable that Jesus wanted to have rule of all the nations without wanting to make a deal with the devil. I think this argument though would end up back at problem one…
      Did that make sense?

      • Jesus was drawn to rule, but did not actively desire it (nor did He fantasize about it). Notice the passive phrasing of “was drawn to”. In English, we could use the word “desire” to describe it, but this is not the sort of desire that one could be held morally responsible for.

        Jesus was drawn to rule because it was, after all, his destiny. We are drawn to personal intimacy because that, too, is our destiny. But we can get confused about what kind of thing to actively desire — romance? sex? prayer? God alone? — as we long for that intimacy.

  2. The debate on whether desires can be sinful needs to be informed by a New Testament notion of desire. In the New Testament, there are passive desires (that which one undergoes, or is tempted toward) and active desires (that which one is inclined to act on). The former type of desire is blameless, the latter type is blameworthy.

    If you read the texts in Greek, the distinction is crystal clear. In English, we tend to ignore such distinctions — as evidenced by the fact that the word “desire” is ambiguous between activity and passivity.

    • Excellent point, Daniel, and from the exegetical perspective, illustrative of the fact that all too often in the conversation over human sexuality, we are NOT speaking the same language. I’ve become very frustrated with the “laziness” of nominal Christians in this arena, and none too sympathetic with believers who refuse to differentiate.

  3. Thanks for posting this. I do think Burk’s first premise is worth unpacking a bit more.

    I often vacillate between wondering whether I’m asexual or gay. (For purposes of this comment, I’ll use the latter.) A lot of queer theorists speak of a plurality of related attractions: sexual attraction, interpersonal attraction, aesthetic attraction, romantic attraction, etc. And while these may reflect separate kinds of attractions, these attractions are not necessarily independent of each other.

    In speaking of these attractions, it can be helpful to make a distinction between whether an attraction is primary or secondary (my terminology). A primary attraction is one that is strong and relatively fixed, and to which the other attractions tend to adjust. A secondary attraction is one that is more fluid, and which tends to adjust to or be derivative of the primary attraction.

    In my observation, most straight guys have a primary sexual attraction directed to women, and their aesthetic, interpersonal, and romantic attractions tend to be secondary and adjust to their sexual attractions.

    In contrast, I find that many (although not all) of us gay guys have no primary sexual attraction at all, not to men or to women. Instead, we may have a primary aesthetic or romantic attraction that’s generally directed to guys. Our sexual attractions, if existent at all, derive from those primary aesthetic or romantic attractions. In that sense, being gay is not simply the opposite of being straight, as many of us gays don’t experience a primary sexual attraction to men. Instead, such sexual attractions emerge, is at all, only in response to and in the service of our aesthetic or romantic attractions. In that sense, for many of us, the sex may be more of a means to an end: I may desire sex with another guy, but primarily to avail myself of the opportunity to be closer to someone to whom I’m aesthetically or romantically attracted. And, in a sex-obsessed culture, sex is often the easiest and most pragmatic way of experiencing that closeness (even if it may not be the best way of doing so).

    And that’s my discomfort with the whole notion of sexual orientation: It assumes that same-sex sexual attraction is just a mirror image of opposite-sex sexual attraction. And I just don’t think that it is, at least for many of us. I suspect that many of us gays are asexual at a primary level, and experience sexual attraction, if at all, only secondarily and in response to a primary aesthetic or romantic attraction to members of the same sex. Moreover, I wonder whether we would even experience that secondary sexual attraction to the same degree (or at all) if we weren’t living in such a sex-obsessed culture.

    • Good comments, Bobby.

      “…most straight guys have a primary sexual attraction directed to women, and their aesthetic, interpersonal, and romantic attractions tend to be secondary and adjust to their sexual attractions.”

      Perhaps that’s what the Vatican has called “affective immaturity”? It seems to me that the sexual should follow the interpersonal, not lead it. So gay or straight, a person who sees “sex object” first and personhood later is affectively immature. (I speak as one who is very prone to “see sex first”, sadly).

      So what you’re calling “asexual”, I’m tempted to call “healthy” — mind you, though, I’m still thinking through all this. The difficulty is that, if you put two healthy people who desire intimacy together in a closed space, a spark will likely ignite, and who knows what sort of fires might develop. This can be great in opposite sex relationships, but — for those who seek chastity — it can be dangerous in same-sex relationships.

      I think of it like fireworks. Intimacy between guys, say, is awesome and wonderful and life-giving, but it needs AIR. It needs to be public, and it needs to involve other people, in a way that marital intimacy between a man and a woman doesn’t — at least until the children arrive. Monsastic abbots (Aelred, for example) have always warned about special relationships that might develop among monks, and I think this is what is being warned about. The problem isn’t that “they might have sex”, as if sex were an isolated thing that is sinful, but everything else is “fair game”. The problem is that the whole relationship might be pure inwardness. One would almost prefer illicit sex to this inwardness (which is something that you see in straight married couples too, if they aren’t genuinely open to family and children).

      Conjugal sex invites the world in. Exclusive relationships drive the world out. If you want the mantra of “modern love”, read Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”, the most depressing and godless monument to toxic inwardness I’ve ever read.

      Sorry for the rambling. Happy Thanksgiving, Spiritual Friends!

  4. I would have liked to have seen more push back on Burk’s interpretation of Jesus’ temptation. Also, there needs to be more engagement on the level of basic biology.

    The major problem with Burk’s premise as I have asserted before is docetism. He explication of Jesus’ temptation denies Jesus’ full humanity. He also seems to lack an understanding of how biology works and how God designed our bodies. He seems to believe that the only appropriate place for sexual desire is toward one’s spouse. Yet, puberty ensures that will never happen. God did not create us with bodies that only turn on sexually on the wedding night.

    Jesus, as a fully human normal male, would have gone through puberty and thus had all kinds of sexual feelings and arousal. He would have seen a beautiful girl and had a physically response. That is basic biology. To say anything else is to say Jesus is not fully human which is heresy. So, yes, Jesus experienced sexual attraction to women that were not his wife. By Burk’s understanding of desire, Jesus would be an adulterer.

    Much sexual desire is involuntary. Our bodies experience arousal and attraction quite apart from our intentions. That is not because we are fallen. It is because we all go through puberty.

    The early Christians believed that sexual desire and sex were problematic because they believed the first sin was sexually related. There was an exegetical argument made that procreation does not appear in the Genesis account until after the fall. In the prelapsarian state, God intended for humankind to procreate in a non-sexual way. But desire came into the picture and humankind chose desire over longing for God. I find that the new emphasis on sinful desire in the Reformed discussion on sexual orientation–Burk, Brownson, Vines, etc not only falls into docetism, but also reverts back to the problematic theology of early Christians who thought sexual desire itself–even heterosexual–was a problem.

    But, given that conservative evangelicals tend to be quite anemic when it comes to science, it is not surprising that sexual desire would be entirely spiritualized without any acknowledgment of how our bodies actually work. Significantly, the discussion fails to note that many women actually have a natural sexual fluidity in a way most men do not. Women can be sexually attracted to other women naturally and not because of any fallen condition. It is just the way women’s sexuality is wired. Also, the discussion fails to acknowledge that our bodies can experience arousal in ways that fall out of socially defined and accepted categories–again because of basic biology.

    The discussion also ignores the impact of the theologies we promote. Burk’s perspective ultimately causes despair for many gay people. We are not capable of becoming asexual. Thus, absolutely any sexual or romantic feeling has to be interpreted as “dark” and “sinful.” Puberty is hard enough as it is without being shamed for just being a sexual being. I don’t sense that Burk has put much thought into the pastoral impact of his theology.

    PS: I find that discussing how all sexuality can be disordered is helpful to a certain extent. For example, heterosexuality is not necessarily more holy. At the same time, I worry that this distracts from the real issue–the problem with saying same-sex desire in itself is sinful. Also, to say that all sexuality is disordered can risk falling into over-spiritualizing basic biology. We need to be careful we are not falling into old traps of viewing sexual desire itself as a problem and the result of the fall. I would like to see conservative Christians really engage the scientific literature on how bodies work sexually.

    And one last point: I would also like to see more discussion on the distinction between natural fallenness and moral fallenness. Part of the problem in this debate is that the Puritans and many Reformed folk tend to overemphasize moral fallenness even when a person’s will is not involved (gay people do not choose or will same-sex desire). However, to his credit, John Owens suggests that something cannot be sin unless it is willful. In my view, same-sex attraction is natural fallenness and not moral fallenness. A person is not morally culpable for having same-sex attraction because it lacks the volitional aspect. However, all of us are morally culpable for intentionally lusting.

    • Karen,

      I think we could convince people like Burk a little better, perhaps, if we ceded some ground, ground that we really don’t have to be occupying to make our point. So, for instance, you say, “Gay people do not choose or will same-sex desire.” But this seems like a half-truth, to me.

      Since the great majority gay or bisexual people have lusted after people of the same sex, the great majority of us have chosen same-sex desire. The relevant point, however, is that we did not ORIGINALLY choose same-sex desire. It came to us, long ago, as something unwilled and “out of the blue”.

      What does this mean about moral responsibility? That we are responsible for our chosen desires, not for our unchosen temptations. This means that I’m totally fine when I see a cute guy in the coffee shop and momentarily I’m taken aback. But I’m not fine if I choose to dwell on my attraction for him — which would be coddling the temptation, as it were.

      • Daniel–you seem to have missed my last couple of sentences. I made the distinction between desire and lust. No, I do not choose my desires. Yes, I do choose to lust. Most of my sexual and romantic feelings are not lust. They are natural biological responses. But I do choose whether or not to fan than desire into lust.

      • I’m not just reiterating the distinction between desire and lust, though. I’m saying that the phenomenon of sexual attraction that most of us — gay or straight — feel is not pure sexual attraction. It is a sexual attraction deeply, deeply influenced by our past choices to lust. Insofar as that is going on, our sexual attractions are our moral responsibility. It’s like as if I had spent half my life being a shopaholic, I would have a fundamentally unhealthy relationship with consumer items, even if I didn’t succumb to the temptation anymore. In this way, we can be morally responsible for dispositions — because we chose them. (Though we didn’t choose the original temptations that made us AT FIRST begin down the path of lust, or down the path of this particular kind of lust.)

    • I think the way you’re characterizing Jesus’s biological development misses out on an important concept: that of the integrity that would have existed between Christ’s passions, appetites and His intellect. In short, His emotional responses were under the direct control of His will and intellect. Thus, there would have been no instance in which He had a sexual response to a woman who wasn’t His wife, because that would be unreasoned.

      • Irksome you are suggesting Jesus never ever felt attracted to a woman which is a docetic heresy that Jesus was not fully human. Normal male sexuality ensures men will feel sexual attraction. God created puberty and what comes with it. However some of the early church fathers who viewed all sexual desire including hetero and spousal attraction as an evil stemming from the fall would agree with you. However that is a view no longer promoted by the Church.

  5. Daniel, I don’t relate to what you are saying. I am sure that what you describe is true for some people. But it’s not true for me and many others. My comment had to do with unchosen, biological response and spontaneous arousal that most human beings experience as a result of going through puberty. I include those who are same-sex attracted who without any kind of encouragement or action on their part begin to experience these sexual desires typically at puberty. You are describing something differently than what I am discussing. So I feel you are missing my point.

    My same-sex attractions are not at all rooted in some kind of past choice to lust. I was raised a very straight-laced kid in a Christian home. I was traumatized when I realized my attractions were to the same sex. There was no lust or previous behavior that precipitated that. Nor is there anything I am doing now that fuels my same-sex attractions. My current desires are not related to lust or previous choices.

    You seem to be describing someone who has perhaps lived a promiscuous life or used porn or something that has fueled lust. Perhaps that is true for you and I am sure it is true for many both gay and heterosexual. But this is not germane to the point I was making.

    • OK. By the way, I know exactly what you mean by “without any kind of encouragement or action on their part [beginning] to experience these sexual desires typically at puberty.” That was me, totally. I don’t think I was morally responsible for those desires, at all.

      But I’ve lusted many times since then, so I am responsible for my desires now — at least many of them.

      Your last paragraph really seems to almost dismiss people who have been promiscuous or used porn. I’m not sure why you do that. Among gay men, probably 95-99% use porn, or have done so in the past. I don’t think we can underestimate the degree to which living in a porn culture affects people. But you’re right: if I had never used porn or lusted, my attraction to men would be a morally blameless fact about myself.

  6. Pingback: Is same-sex attraction sinful? Charles Hodge sheds biblical light. | Denny Burk

  7. Pingback: Which Part of Homosexuality is Sinful? Orientation or Behavior… or Both? | Systematic Theology and Apologetics

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