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:
- 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.