A few weeks ago, I sat on a panel at the Evangelical Theological Society discussing the question “Is Same-Sex Orientation Sinful?” Owen Strachan moderated the discussion among three of us who presented papers on the subject: Wesley Hill, Preston Sprinkle, and yours truly. Both Wesley and Preston have posted on the session. Craig Sanders has written a report as well.
I am currently working on a book about sexual orientation, and much of what I presented to the panel was a rough version of what will appear in that book. So I will hold back on rehashing the entire argument here. If you want to read my paper, send me an e-mail and I’ll send it to you (contact me here).
The heart of our disagreement on the panel was over the ethics of orientation. In short, we had a disagreement about whether same-sex attraction is sinful. I argued that it is. Preston and Wesley argued that it is not. So those were the two sides of the panel.
Common objections to my position go like this. “How can an orientation be sinful if it is unchosen? How can same-sex sexual attraction be sinful if it is involuntary? If the orientation and the attractions that flow from the orientation are natural, how can they be sinful?”
So much of the discussion came down to how we define terms: sin, orientation, attraction, desire, etc. Once the terms are defined, what remains is to show how a biblical anthropology maps onto modern sexual identity labels. I’m not sure we came to terms on all that, but I thought we made some progress. Given that all three of us are Augustinian in our view of sin and grace, I’m hopeful that we might yet achieve even greater unity on these things.
At least one thing has become clear to me as I have been looking at this question rather closely over the last year. This question really isn’t a new one. At the end of the day, the question forces us back onto terrain that has been well-traversed by theologians over the past 20 centuries. The answer really does come down to one’s anthropology.
If you view human nature as a tabula rasa and if you reduce sin/sinfulness to one’s behavior—that which one chooses to do—then you are going to answer the question a certain way. If however, you regard the human condition as fundamentally flawed—that we are sinful not just in our choices but also in our nature—then you are going to answer the question a different way. And that difference goes back at least as far as Augustine and Pelagius.
To that end, I was struck by some passages that I recently read in Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology. Arguing against “Pelagian and Rationalistic Doctrine,” he writes:
We do attribute moral character to principles which precede all voluntary action and which are entirely independent of the power of the will… We hold ourselves responsible not only for the deliberate acts of the will, that is, for acts of deliberate self-determination, which suppose both knowledge and volition, but also for emotional, impulsive acts, which precede all deliberation; and not only for such impulsive acts, but also for the principles, dispositions, or immanent states of the mind, by which its acts whether impulsive or deliberate, are determined. When a man is convinced of sin, it is not so much for specific acts of transgression that his conscience condemns him, as for the permanent states of his mind; his selfishness, wordliness, and maliciousness; his ingratitude, unbelief, and hardness of heart; his want of right affections, of love to God, of zeal for the Redeemer, and of benevolence towards men. These are not acts. They are not states of mind under control of the will; and yet in the judgment of conscience, which we cannot silence or pervert, they constitute our character and are just ground of condemnation… (Systematic Theology, II.107)
Hodge doesn’t leave it there. He makes a scriptural argument for this view and concludes,
The denial, therefore, that dispositions or principles as distinguished from acts, can have a moral character, subverts some of the most plainly revealed doctrines of the sacred Scriptures (Systematic Theology, II.110).
The key doctrine he has in mind is the doctrine of original sin. On this point, Hodge writes,
All Christian churches receive the doctrines of original sin and regeneration in a form which involves not only the principle that dispositions, as distinguished from acts, may have a moral character, but also that such character belongs to them whether they be innate, acquired, or infused. It is, therefore, most unreasonable to assume the ground that a man can be responsible only for his voluntary acts, or for their subjective effects, when our own consciousness, the universal judgment of men, the word of God, and the Church universal, so distinctly assert the contrary (Systematic Theology, II.113).
I know that was long, but the key point is this. We are sinners by nature and by choice. At the most fundamental level, in fact, our nature produces our choices. We inherit a sinful nature from our father Adam so that we are spring-loaded to sin. And that is not merely a word for people experiencing same-sex attraction. That is a word for all of us. Same-sex attraction is merely one variety of fallenness. But make no mistake. It is not the only one. We are all fallen and are in this predicament together.
Modern attempts to take same-sex attraction—or even same-sex orientation—out from this biblical framework are doomed to failure. They produce a superficial understanding of sin and the human condition, and they hinder people from perceiving their need for the transformation that Jesus provides.
One more thing, Hodge’s account of sin and the nature of man is not an outlier. It represents the mainstream of evangelical—and especially Reformed—anthropology. It also happens to be the scriptural position.
I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. -Romans 7:23