In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes how a legalistic interpretation of the law of Moses actually misses the sinfulness of common attitudes of the heart. Matthew 5:27-28 is just one example of this theme. In the ESV, this passage reads, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
I have often seen this passage used to argue that “same-sex attraction” or a “homosexual orientation” or something similar is a sin. Sometimes the further argument is that we shouldn’t identify with our sin by using words like “gay.”
The thing is, there are major issues with the way I usually see this argument being made. After all, the immediate context of the passage is heterosexual: a man looking at a woman lustfully. So how do people usually understand its application to heterosexual forms of sexual attraction?
Most evangelicals I’ve talked to say that there is some kind of distinction between “sexual attraction” and the “lustful intent” described in this passage. For example, they see a man’s attraction to another man’s wife as a form of temptation that may or may not cross the line into sin depending on how he handles it.
For someone who takes this kind of approach to heterosexual attraction, the passage provides no reason to take homosexual attraction any differently. It’s thus not a reason to see homosexual attraction itself as a form of sin (though like heterosexual attraction, it can lead to sinful sexual activity or lust in the heart).
On the other hand, there are some people in Reformed circles who see sexual attraction towards the wrong person as always a sin, even in a heterosexual context. From this perspective, it is straightforward to see homosexual attraction itself as a sin.
But even in this case, the way it’s used to argue that homosexual attraction is a sin doesn’t make a lot of sense. Specifically, most folks making the argument make a huge deal about homosexual desire, and see the acceptance of it as temptation rather than sin as a crisis. However, they say almost nothing about the common interpretation of adulterous heterosexual attraction as only temptation and not sin.
If viewing homosexual attraction as merely a temptation is a crisis, why is the same view of adulterous heterosexual attraction not an even larger crisis? Alternatively, if it’s good enough to find common ground because the focus is on how to resist temptation, why can the same not be said about efforts like Spiritual Friendship and Revoice?
In my life, I’ve been privy to a lot of conversations on sexual attraction. I originally grew up in the Evangelical Covenant Church, then went to a non-denominational Christian college while attending a Christian & Missionary Alliance church, finally ending up in PCA churches during and after graduate school.
And it’s not like I’ve been ignoring these conversations or treating them as a purely academic matter. I’ve experienced sexual attractions towards women since puberty. I have been trying to process these feelings in community, even before I was willing to talk about my feelings towards men.
With the exception of a few people deeply committed to Reformed theology, I have almost exclusively encountered the view that some distinction should be drawn between “sexual attraction” and “lustful intent.” For example, while people would see a married man’s attractions towards women other than his wife as a form of temptation, they almost never see the basic attraction as in and of itself a sin. However, there are exceptions.
Let’s take a closer look at these two broad approaches and how they view Matthew 5:28.
Approach One: “Lustful Intent” Is More Than Just Sexual Attraction To The Wrong Person
The view that I’ve almost universally encountered is that there’s a line to be drawn between basic, involuntary “sexual attraction” and lustful intent. This approach actually encompasses a range of views, as people differ on where exactly to draw the line. But many would quote Luther here: “You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.”
Because I’m male, most of the conversations I’ve been privy to have focused on the attraction on the part of men towards women rather than the other way around. To simplify the discussion, I will focus on that case here, but recognize that the same principles could be applied in the opposite case.
There are extreme cases that almost everyone with this broad approach would agree on. A man noticing that another man’s wife is beautiful may be seen as a temptation, but not as a sin. A man taking an extended look at another man’s wife to imagine sexual acts with her would be sinful lustful intent. In the middle, there are fuzzier cases, like the various cases where a man notices a woman and has some sort of hormonal reaction. For some, as soon as “attraction” crosses into “desire” for particular sexual acts, a sin has occurred. For others, it is only a sin upon the volitional choice to take a second look or to dwell on those desires.
Most men with whom I’ve discussed these matters admit to regularly falling into the sin of lust, whether they are married or single. The question here is not whether they have a perfect record; the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:27-28 are convicting for almost everyone. Nonetheless, the general consensus is that there’s a basic level of sexual attraction that is involuntary and not an actual sin, even if it is a temptation. The focus of most discussions is on how to avoid this temptation giving birth to sin, not on how to eradicate the temptation altogether.
Approach Two: Sexual Attraction To The Wrong Person Is The Same Thing as “Lustful Intent”
The less common view I’ve only encountered within certain Reformed circles is that any experience that can be deemed “sexual attraction” is a sin unless it is directed towards marriage. On this view, sexual attraction on the part of a husband towards his wife or vice versa is generally good and appropriate. Some sort of sexual attraction on the part of a single man towards a single woman or vice versa may also be considered appropriate, insofar as it directs the people involved towards marriage rather than fornication.
But on this view, the only key to Jesus’s classification of “lustful intent” is the object of the desire. For a married person, “sexual attraction” can be holy if directed towards one’s spouse, but is a sin in all other circumstances. Even for a single person, “sexual attraction” towards someone else’s spouse is always a sin.
In this view, one nuance that may exist is in what counts as “sexual.” For example, a man noticing that a woman is beautiful may be seen as separate from sexual attraction. But if it’s sexual, it’s either directed towards marriage or a sin. Large swaths of sexual attraction that most people experience are condemned with a broad brush.
What About Homosexual Attraction?
As I mentioned above, this passage is often used to argue that homosexual attraction is a sin, because it is allegedly the kind of sin of the heart that Jesus mentions here.
However, when discussing heterosexual attraction, most people take “approach one,” the idea that there are distinctions to be drawn between “sexual attraction” oriented towards adultery and “lustful intent.” Matthew 5:28 provides no reason to treat homosexual attraction any differently. If one believes that the involuntary sexual feelings that people feel towards the opposite sex (even towards other people’s spouses) are not themselves a sin, why believe that involuntary sexual feelings towards the same sex are in a different category? While one could try to make the argument from other passages in Scripture, Matthew 5:28 is irrelevant to this argument. Nonetheless, this verse is sometimes cited where at the very least a different approach would be needed.
As I mentioned above, those who take approach two are often rather inconsistent in focus. Specifically, they only make a big deal about how homosexual attraction is a sin, despite occasionally mentioning adulterous heterosexual desire as also sinful. They may argue that the sinfulness of homosexual desire is the question under debate in our era. But, at least among the laity in most evangelical churches, the ship has already sailed on heterosexual desire. Married people generally don’t think they have to repent of every sexual feeling they feel towards another person of the opposite sex. Single people don’t generally think they have to repent of every sexual feeling towards a married person.
As I said above, if the acceptance of homosexual attraction as something that can be just a temptation without being a sin is a crisis, why is the same extremely common view of adulterous heterosexual attraction not a much larger crisis? Or if much of the dialogue on sexuality is still useful because it still revolves around resisting temptation, why can the same not be said for efforts like Spiritual Friendship and Revoice?
Whatever specific view one takes of Matthew 5:28, it’s important to make sure one takes Jesus’s word to heart as it regards the primary context of the passage, rather than just using it as a prooftext in an argument about homosexual attraction. It’s a difficult passage that points to a kind of sin that most of us fall to with some regularity, whatever kind of sexual attractions we normally experience. It shows our common need for Christ’s grace and our inability to achieve holiness on our own by following the Law. Let’s acknowledge our common need at the foot of the cross, regardless of where exactly we cross the line from temptation into sin.