The future of evangelical reflection on same-sex orientation

Last week, Matthew Vines had an extended interaction with Sam Allberry’s review of God and the Gay Christian. Vines digs his heals in and defends the main thesis of his book while critiquing Allberry’s book Is God anti-gay?

Those who have read my own review of Vines’s book will not be surprised that I find much to disagree with in Vines’s remarks. He continues to argue that same-sex orientation is a morally neutral—and even praiseworthy—category of desire. I won’t rehearse all my reasons for disagreement but simply direct the reader to my earlier review.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that I find myself in agreement with Vines about one thing (though I am not at all convinced that Vines has read Allberry correctly). Vines highlights the inconsistency of those who try to stake out a “middle ground” on the morality of same-sex orientation and behavior. The “middle ground” view holds that while same-sex behavior is always wrong, same-sex orientation is not. Vines writes:

Sympathetic as I am to that attempt at a middle ground, however, it cannot hold from a biblical perspective. The Bible simply does not allow us to consider ourselves blameless for internal temptations to sin, nor does it allow us to view unchanged sinful desires as a sign of a vibrant, faithful Christian life.

As I have argued elsewhere, I believe that this statement is essentially correct. Christians who recognize the sinfulness of same-sex behavior but not of same-sex attraction are in a moral and theological no-man’s land. Biblically speaking, our desires and attractions—no matter how innate they may seem—are not exempt from moral scrutiny. God holds us accountable not only for our deeds, but also for the desires that give rise to them (e.g., Matt. 5:27-28; James 1:14-15).

I think that Vines’s views put him outside the evangelical fold. Nevertheless, Vines highlights an issue that continues to divide evangelical reflection about same-sex attraction. There is broad agreement among evangelicals that the Bible forbids same-sex behavior. There is continuing disagreement among evangelicals concerning the Bible’s teaching about same-sex orientation. On one side are those who see same-sex attraction as morally neutral. They view SSA as a “broken” desire but not necessarily as a sinful one (see here, here). On the other side are those who see SSA as a sinful desire that requires repentance and renewal in the gospel (see here, here). These two perspectives are irreconcilable, in my view, yet they are held by Christians who otherwise have great confessional unity among them.

What does all of this mean? Among other things, it means that conservative evangelicals have yet to think their way through to biblical clarity on the issue of same-sex orientation. It also means that evangelical theologians need to regard the resolution of this question a matter of great pastoral urgency. We are not, after all, arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. How we answer this question determines how we counsel brothers and sisters who contend daily with ongoing and unwelcome same-sex attraction.

That doesn’t mean that we need to let this question be a continuing point of division or that we need to be suspicious of one another in the meantime. It simply means that we need to put our heads together and do some careful and prayerful thinking about these issues. I am confident that those of us who are committed to the authority of scripture will find our way to unity on these things. We’ll get there, but we need to be open to listen to one another and to let scripture speak. I have already had my own thinking refined by brothers with a different perspective on these things. I expect more of that in the future.

To that end, I would mention one conversation forthcoming this November at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. Wesley Hill, Preston Sprinkle, and I will be presenting papers in a special session on this topic. Owen Strachan will moderate a panel discussion at the end. The presenters hold in common what the Bible teaches about same-sex behavior. We have some differences on what the Bible teaches about same-sex attraction. My hope in proposing this session is to stimulate reflection toward biblical clarity and unity. I hope it’s the beginning of many such conversations among friends in coming days.

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For those who will be in or near San Diego during this year’s ETS meeting, here is the info on our session:

Session: “Issues in Sexuality & Gender”
When: 2:00-5:10pm, Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Where: Town and Country Resort & Convention Center, San Diego, CA

Presentations:
Denny Burk, “Is Same-Sex Orientation Sinful?”
Preston Sprinkle, “Sexual Orientation in Paul’s World: It’s Not What You Think”
Wesley Hill, “Is Being Gay Sanctifiable? Scripture and the Great Tradition on Same-Sex Love and Christian Friendship”
Owen Strachan, moderator of panel discussion

15 Responses to The future of evangelical reflection on same-sex orientation

  1. Paul Reed June 9, 2014 at 1:41 pm #

    I have an observation about this post. If we ask liberals what they believe on homosexuality, we’ll get a more-or-less unifying answer: “There is nothing wrong with being gay, and gays should have ever right that heterosexuals do”. On the other hand, if we ask conservative Christians the same question, we’ll get as many different answers as people.

  2. Ken Abbott June 9, 2014 at 2:59 pm #

    Depends on the standard or authority you rely on to make your choices.

  3. James Bradshaw June 9, 2014 at 3:50 pm #

    If involuntary same-sex attraction is sinful, then I’m assuming you believe that similar involuntary but perhaps illicit desires are as well, right?

    This would include: involuntary heterosexual sexual attraction to someone that is not one’s spouse, a moment of anger, etc?

    This would at least be consistent.

    • Ian Shaw June 9, 2014 at 5:01 pm #

      Yes James, sexual sin covers a wide variety of behaviors, not just homosexuality.

    • Ken Abbott June 9, 2014 at 5:17 pm #

      There are degrees of difference. From a biblical perspective, heterosexual attraction to someone to whom you are not married (stranger, friend, or relative) is a licit impulse wrongly channeled if allowed to proceed to lust. Homosexual attraction is an illicit impulse no matter how channeled or indulged. There are other illicit sexual impulses, lest anyone think homosexuality is being singled out.

    • Denny Burk June 9, 2014 at 8:41 pm #

      James,

      Yes, that is correct.

      Denny

  4. Nathan Cesal June 9, 2014 at 5:48 pm #

    It would be constructive if you would talk us how your views have changed over time.

  5. Bob Wilson June 9, 2014 at 10:57 pm #

    Wow. Just wow.

    I used to think Christopher Hitchens was being hyperbolic when he compared God to Kim Jong Il.

    But a religion that teaches that your most intimate and involuntary impulses are being policed and judged can only be described as totalitarian.

    • Ken Abbott June 10, 2014 at 9:45 am #

      In the words of Anselm of Canterbury, “You have not as yet estimated the great burden of sin.” We are great sinners. This is why we need a great Savior.

  6. Esther O'Reilly June 10, 2014 at 9:33 am #

    This is a tricky theological point, but I’m not sure I entirely agree with Denny. I think it’s entirely possible to view homosexual temptation as a tragic thing (not a neutral thing), and something that’s terribly broken by comparison with healthy romantic desires for heterosexuals, without going so far as to say temptation in general is a sin. I agree that the fact we can be tempted is a sign of human weakness, I’m just not sure that merely being assaulted with an urge is by itself sinful.

    • Ian Shaw June 10, 2014 at 11:51 am #

      This could get into splitting hairs, but I would whole heartedly say that temptation alone is not sin. At least for sexual sin, temptiation is not, but it’s that moment you take something and proceed to fantasy, does it then become lust and is now sin.

      Great book on that called “At the altar of sexual idolatry”.

  7. Don Johnson June 10, 2014 at 12:14 pm #

    I think Denny is trying to say that temptation is sin and this idea is very crazy making for any that believe it. I see one consequence is that some may end up denying they are even tempted in an area when they actually are, which cannot be healthy. There are many reasons not to go down the path of legalism but I find this is one of the scariest.

  8. Don Johnson June 10, 2014 at 12:26 pm #

    In the one thing that Vines and Burk may agree upon, that there is no middle ground, I wish to point out that just because some people claim there are only 2 choices does not mean there are only 2 choices. Extremists can be tempted to present false dichotomies, this does not mean the extremist is necessarily right or wrong, but it is a way to try to thwart the idea that there is no middle ground, and this is true for extremists on either end of a spectrum.

    An example of presenting a false dichotomy is the science and faith discussion, there are 2 groups that insist it is a battle to the death, many atheists and many Young Earthers see it as science VERSUS faith as this is a way to exclude the possibilities in the middle which combine science WITH faith in various ways.

  9. Ryan Davidson June 10, 2014 at 11:23 pm #

    I’m not sure that this discussion is too helpful without mooring it to clear definitions of terms like attraction, orientation, desire, etc. For example, attraction can be generalized, as in a general preference for blondes over brunettes, or it can be specific, as in a preference for a particular blonde. When most gay people refer to orientation, they are referring to a generalized attractional preference for one sex over the other, similar to how people may prefer blondes over brunettes, or muscular guys over slender guys. Vines seems to be using a different definition, i.e., one where the generalized attractional preference grows into a specific sexual desire for a specific individual. In that sense, Vines has defined orientation in a way that incorporates a fair bit of voluntary activity (albeit it mental activity). In contrast, if orientation is defined as a mere generalized attractional preference (with no specific object), then I think it’s much harder to conclude that orientation is necessarily sinful.

    In my view, the key weakness of the Vines thesis lies in its assumption that sexual orientation is essential to social identity, i.e., orientation essentialism. For that reason, he conflates generalized attractional preferences with specific sexual desires for a particular object. If one rejects orientation essentialism (and Christians probably should), then there’s no reason to accept the proposition that generalized attractional preferences necessarily translate into specific sexual desires.

    If we properly jettison orientation essentialism, then it saves us from trying to make facile (and somewhat Pelagian) distinctions between licit and illicit desires, or natural and unnatural desires. After all, because we are all subject to the Fall, it’s impossible to do anything without falling victim to illicit desires. Even when one has sex within the context of marriage, there’s an ever-present tendency to objectify his spouse sexually. So, even that which is natural and licit is nevertheless tainted by sin. Further, attraction to persons of the same sex can be redemptive For example, it would be difficult to develop friendships of any depth without a fair degree of attraction. Our tendency to categorize same-sex attraction as illicit, especially between men, probably explains why male-male friendships within the church are often so vacuous.

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  1. The Round-Up (June 10, 2014) | Entreating Favor - June 10, 2014

    […] The future of evangelical reflection on same-sex orientation – Last week, Matthew Vines had an extended interaction with Sam Allberry’s review of God and the Gay Christian. Vines digs his heals in and defends the main thesis of his book while critiquing Allberry’s book Is God anti-gay?  Those who have read my own review of Vines’s book will not be surprised that I find much to disagree with in Vines’s remarks. He continues to argue that same-sex orientation is a morally neutral—and even praiseworthy—category of desire. I won’t rehearse all my reasons for disagreement but simply direct the reader to my earlier review. […]

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