A Primer on Whether Same-Sex Attraction is Sinful

December 1, 2015 — 2 Comments


Of the writing of books on homosexuality there is no end.

Authors can set off on one of two trails. Either they can try to argue their way around Scripture presenting new research or they can respond to the latest arguments defending the more traditional and historic view of homosexuality.

But a third path has appeared in the woods as well. Recently the conversation has turned to more detailed and pastoral issues.

One of these specific issues in the historic view is whether same-sex attraction is sinful (SSA is a common euphemism for homosexual orientation). Does the object of the desire make it sinful? Did Jesus ever desire a sinful object? Or does a desire become sinful only when it gives birth to sin?

This is a practical issue for counseling situations and simply in terms of having well-reasoned biblical and articulate views of sexuality. Should pastors and leaders be urging those with SSA to be repenting of an orientation? Or should we simply tell them to repent when the desire has given birth?

I have been following this debate for a little while and have not seen a succinct summary of the issues, so I thought I would compile a primer on “who’s who” of this debate. I will give my opinion at the end but the aim is not necessarily to convince you. The aim is more modest: to provide a summary of the the main talking points in a succinct post.

Any short excerpt has the possibility of distortion, so I have tried to provide the key points acknowledging that more could be said. That is why a link is provided with each name. There are other people I could list, so forgive me if I missed anyone, but I think this gives an overview of where the argument stands.

Homosexual Orientation is Sinful

Denny Burk

The Bible says that our sexual desires/attractions have a moral component and that we are held accountable for them.

Paul says that the desires themselves are morally blameworthy and stand as evidence of God’s wrath against sin: “For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions… and [they] burned in their desire toward one another” (Rom 1:26-27). Sexual desire that fixates on the same-sex is sinful, and that is why God’s judgment rightly falls on both desires and actions. Again, the issue is not merely sexual behavior but also one’s enduring pattern of sexual attraction.

My conclusion is that if sexual orientation is one’s enduring pattern of sexual attraction, then the Bible teaches both same-sex behavior and same-sex orientation to be sinful.

Many say that “being gay” is not “reducible” to same-sex sexual attraction. In a limited sense, I would agree with that. I do not dispute that gay people report heightened emotional connections with the same sex that are non-sexual in nature. So maybe we would agree not to say that sexual desire is the only element that gay people experience as a part of their SSA. Nevertheless, sexual desire does seem to be the defining element.

Kevin DeYoung

What does that say about orientation? Well, it would certainly suggest that the sexual desire for somebody of the same gender is sin, if it arises to the level of lust (just like lust for somebody of the opposite sex would be sin as Jesus says in Matthew 5). And I think we go a little farther to say that the desire itself—the kind of attraction—is disordered, meaning it’s not the way that God designed things from the beginning.

So is homosexual orientation sinful? I wouldn’t want somebody watching this who has a struggle with same sex attraction to think that they are beyond the pale of God’s mercy or forgiveness. At the same time, I want them to know that Scripture clearly says that to act upon those attractions and to engage in that behavior is sinful.

* With DeYoung’s language, it is not clear that he sits squarely in this camp.

Albert Mohler

The Bible speaks rather directly to the sinfulness of the homosexual orientation — defined as a pattern of sexual attraction to a person of the same sex. In Romans 1:24-27, Paul writes of “the lusts of their hearts to impurity,” of “dishonorable passions,” of women who “exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature,” and of men who “gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another.” A close look at this passage reveals that Paul identifies the sinful sexual passion as a major concern — not just the behavior.

When it comes to a same-sex attraction, the orientation is sinful because it is defined by an improper object — someone of the same sex. Of course, those of us whose sexual orientation is directed toward the opposite sex are also sinners, but the sexual orientation is not itself sinful.

Homosexual Orientation is Distinct From Sinning

Nick Roen

The Bible does not seem to explicitly mention same-sex attraction. It is possible that the “dishonorable passions” in Romans 1:26 could be dealing with SSA, but it’s unclear whether this is a reference to simply experiencing an attraction, or following the attraction into active lusting.

Our passions may be disordered by the fall of this creation, and yet be distinct from active sinning.

Given the above realities, it seems right to say that while homosexual practice is active sinning, the experience of same-sex attraction need not involve active sinning.

Wesley Hill

I think it may make sense to view the differences between us as differences between multiple models/definitions of homosexuality. It seems to me that some view homosexuality much more like a pre-modern Christian might: to be homosexually oriented is to experience discrete moments of temptation, forbidden desire, and (perhaps) to perform certain actions or behavior.

But we live in a constantly changing world, and many modern Westerners—especially, but not only, younger people—recognize that “being gay” today is a cultural identity.

A gay orientation can be understood as an overall draw toward someone of the same sex, which is usually a desire for a deeper level intimacy with those of the same sex. Just like a heterosexual orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for straight sex, a gay orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for gay sex.

I want to suggest—and I do so tentatively, as a sort of thought experiment—that when people like Julie (and I) say that their “being gay” can be the time or the place where they experience redemptive grace, they’re speaking very much within a contemporary framework of thinking about homosexuality. They’re recognizing that not all aspects of this new social construct—“being gay”—are reducible to what the Bible names as lust or what pre-modern Christians (and modern ones) recognized as sin. There’s a whole raft of experiences and social connections and relational histories and aesthetic sensibilities that go under the rubric of “being gay” for many of us moderns. And when we suggest that our coming to Christ doesn’t simply erase all that but instead purifies and elevates parts of it, we’re not suggesting that the inclination to have gay sex somehow gets sanctified. Rather, what we’re trying to articulate is that much of who we were as gay is somehow made Christian.

Preston Sprinkle

We can quickly dismiss Romans 1:27, since it’s not talking about same-sex attraction but same-sex lust.

I don’t think it’s accurate to equate what people mean by same-sex attraction to what the Bible says about sexual desire. SSA is a general disposition, regardless of whether someone is acting on, or even thinking about, it.

It would be wrong to reduce same-sex attraction to a desire to have sex. Same sex attraction refers “an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to” someone of the same sex and includes other non-sexual relational bonds such as “affection between partners, shared goals and values, mutual support, and ongoing commitment” (APA). SSA is not just about actively wanting to have sex.

Romans 1 appears to conflate desire and action. That is, Paul doesn’t seem to view a naked desire apart from a sinful action. (But SSA is something that is not acted upon.) Notice that when Paul mentions the “passions of dishonor” in 1:26 he immediately explains these desire by describing an action: “for even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.” Paul is talking about women having sex with women. And he doesn’t consider the “passions of dishonor” separate from the act. It’s the whole entire event—the act and the desire that fueled the act—that’s condemned as sin.

Summary and Reflection

So where are we today? First, there seems to be some difference in how people are using words like “orientation”, “desire”, “lust”, “inclination” and “attraction.” For a few there appears to be some assent and involvement if a desire is there. For others orientations and inclinations are uncontrollable and therefore held at some distance. To my knowledge Burk never distinguishes attraction from desire.

But it seems to me that there should be a difference between “desire/lust” and “orientation/inclination.” Orientation/inclination should not be considered sinful in of itself, while lust would obviously put someone into the category of sin giving birth. The hardest word, both in the bible and in contemporary use, is the word desire. But James 1:14-15 pushes me towards thinking that there can be desires that are not sinful, until they give birth to sin.

It is true, in a sense, that SSA is one dimension of what it means to have a sinful nature, just as heterosexuals have sinful desires within the sphere of their heterosexual desires. The question Christian’s must wrestle with is the moral status of “orientation” not only “same-sex orientation.” Heterosexual orientations can also be sinful. But this is different from seeing the orientation as sinful in and of itself.

Although we could spend quite a bit of time on terminology this is not where the center of the debate is. The major question of this debate is whether SSA can be reduced or defined by a sexual desire. If SSA is not reduced to the sexual act then the orientation itself is not sinful. This circumvents the terminology question and asks a deeper question of orientation itself. Could it be that we are defining orientation using the sexual revolution’s map?

It is related to anthropology and whether we follow Augustine and see every sinful desire as a disordered good and even holding onto some remnant of good. So does a “same-sex orientation” preserve goodness in that the desire for mutuality, friendship, and companionship are good desires? Therefore if “same-sex orientation” is not reduced to the sexual act then the orientation itself is not sinful.

As a friend pointed out, we Christians have a vested interested in defining something like orientation in ways that explicitly call attention to its redeemable facets that are common to all orientations. If not we will have a two-tiered sexuality.


Patrick Schreiner

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I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

2 responses to A Primer on Whether Same-Sex Attraction is Sinful

  1. Patrick,

    Good post here. I’m a student at Western in Seattle.
    A few quick comments. I’m surprised you didn’t include Rosaria Butterfield in this analysis. She’s got a pretty good perspective especially from the more reformed camp.

    I’ve also been wondering a lot about the language we, as Christians, use to describe homosexuality especially among A) Christians B) those living in the gay culture. I think it may call for a difference in language for both cultures and that the phrase “same-sex attraction” isn’t very helpful for either culture.

    For example, what even is attraction? In my mind it’s basically a word that describes how we physically react to someone at a sexual level (and this can quickly lead to lust which is wanting something, mainly sexually, that one selfishly desires to have and/or use). I haven’t come to a conclusion on how to define attraction, but I think we need to think bigger than just sexuality when it comes to the struggle against homosexual desires as often homosexuality is an identity issue.

    This is a hard topic to deal with and I don’t think we’ve thought through it completely at a theological or pastoral level. Our language will show our theological bais (as these authors clearly show). Rosaria uses the phrase “someone who is struggling with unwanted homosexual desires” to describe the Christian who deals with this issue and I think this accurately describes the Christian who is fighting against the indwelling sin but dosen’t necessarily describe someone who isn’t fighting and who doesn’t even believe in Jesus.

    I’m not sure what language we should use with group B) but I think it needs to be in grace with truth (and maybe just meeting them where they’re at and using their language while speaking the new identity of Christ into them as they come to believe.). And maybe it’s not needing to use different language with followers of Jesus and not-yet-followers of Jesus!

    Any thoughts and comments would be appreciated!

    • Patrick Schreiner December 5, 2015 at 11:56 am

      Thanks for the interaction. You are correct, I probably should have included Butterfield. I just have not read any of her stuff yet and did not have the energy to before I put up this post. Maybe that makes this primer insufficient but that is where I am at right now.

      In terms of the language I have heard that she pushes towards changing our language about it. It seems that is where you are going to. I am not sure that is possible. I think we need to live with the language that is used in many cases. Sometimes it is possible to change it, other times we will just be complicating the matter. So my tendency is to retain the language and then define what we mean by the language.

      What is an orientation seems to be the big question here.

      Again thanks for the interaction.

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