On the ethics of sexual attraction (same-sex and otherwise)

The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society has just published an article that I have been working on for a little over a year. Even though the piece is titled “Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?,” it’s really just an extended treatment of the ethics of sexual attraction. My contention is that the Bible speaks a clear word about our experience of sexual attraction be it heterosexual, homosexual, or otherwise. Whenever we desire something that God forbids, we are experiencing an “attraction” that is sinful and that God would have us to repent of.

If this thesis is correct, then it is an error to claim that same-sex attraction is merely a temptation that is not itself sinful. This is an issue of great pastoral urgency because it informs us how to be faithful to Christ in our experience of unwholesome sexual attractions. And that is an issue that we all must reckon with, not just those who are same-sex attracted.

The material in this article will appear later this year in a longer work that Heath Lambert and I have co-authored on the ethics of same-sex attraction:

Denny Burk and Heath Lambert, Transforming Homosexuality: How to Live Faithfully with Same-Sex Attraction (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2015).

The argument in this forthcoming book is aimed at a popular audience and further develops the pastoral implications of this particular view of same-sex attraction. Heath and I are eager for the release of this book and for evangelicals to take up this conversation in earnest. Until then, you can read the technical version in the JETS article linked below.

Denny Burk, “Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?,” JETS 58, no. 1 (March 2015): 95-115.

33 Responses to On the ethics of sexual attraction (same-sex and otherwise)

  1. J. M. LaRue April 8, 2015 at 12:01 pm #

    Thank you Denny for your work and attention to this very important issue. Praying for the Gospel to go forth with this work. That those needing to hear a word from God on this specific issue will be inclined to listen and that transformation might truly occur.

    We all need to hear the call to turn away and repent from desiring the things God has forbidden.

    • Denny Burk April 8, 2015 at 12:06 pm #

      Thanks, brother. I appreciate you!

  2. Christiane Smith April 8, 2015 at 1:59 pm #

    Hi DENNY,
    thank you so much for writing with understanding and for hosting this conversation among people who care about this issue . . .

    We must ask another question, I think, this: we know that Christ was tempted IN ALL WAYS that mankind is tempted, and we must consider the possibility that the span of what Our Lord faced included ALL that our humanity is faced with, even down to those specific burdens that only some of us are called to bear in the way of temptation.

    Let me explain:

    I think the gift of God to us of His Son was a gift of redeeming love …

    The work of the crucifixion unfolds from the purpose of the Incarnation:
    Adam was not capable of death until he sinned, only then was Adam mortal.
    Christ, the second Adam, did not sin, but was capable of death on the cross BECAUSE at the Incarnation He assumed us in the state of our waywardness of sin, to the point that He could say in our name from the cross:’ “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Having thus established Him in solidarity with us sinners, God “did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all”, so that we might be “reconciled to God by the death of His Son”

    From the mystery of the Incarnation, this we know:
    The proof that Christ at Incarnation fully assumed our waywardly-inclined humanity is that He died on the cross.
    The proof that Christ Himself never sinned is that death had no power to hold Him, hence, the Resurrection.

    DENNY, it may be possible that there is not one human temptation that Our Lord did not face because we know that He bore ALL of our humanity’s painful situation when He assumed our humanity. So, there are no ‘sinners’ among those who, like Him, are tempted in specific ways to do with sex, and who turn away from those temptations while trusting and relying completely on the mercy of God to help them.

  3. deb welch (@debwelch) April 8, 2015 at 7:28 pm #

    Amen and amen!
    Excellent work on this very greatly needed article. All blessings in Christ to you, sir!

  4. buddyglass April 9, 2015 at 8:06 am #

    “If this thesis is correct, then it is an error to claim that same-sex attraction is merely a temptation that is not itself sinful.”

    Actually, I think that claim might still be valid. Hear me out. If attraction to something God forbids is a sin that requires repentance, then same-sex attraction for the homosexual plays out roughly like opposite-sex attraction does for most heterosexuals. That’s because most heterosexuals occasionally experience sexual attraction toward members of the opposite sex to whom they are not married. Per the thesis, these instances of attraction are sinful and require repentance. But what they do not require is repentance of heterosexual attraction in general.

    So I could see the argument that while individual instances of same-sex attraction are sinful and must be repented of, simply being predisposed to experience sinful instances of same-sex attraction (as opposed to being predisposed to experience sinful instances of opposite-sex attraction) is not itself sinful.

    You can argue (probably correctly) that a homosexual predisposition is further “out of order” with God’s intent than a heterosexual predisposition, but it’s really only a matter of degree. Consider: was it God’s intent that heterosexuals fairly frequently experience sexual attraction toward members of the opposite sex to whom they aren’t married? Probably not. Ergo the sexualities of heterosexuals are also “out of order” with original intent. To the extent homosexuals should daily repent of their same-sex attraction, heterosexuals should daily repent (and with similar urgency) of their predisposition to experience sexual attraction toward members of the opposite sex to whom they aren’t married.

    But we tend not to emphasize or require that level of daily repentance from heterosexuals. We don’t generally regard them as “sexually disordered”.

    • buddyglass April 9, 2015 at 8:19 am #

      One bit of elaboration on the last paragraph:

      Both heterosexuals and homosexuals are fallen and live in a fallen creation. Consequently, both camps’ sexuality is distorted from what it should be. In the case of homosexuals this manifests in sexual attraction toward individuals to whom they aren’t married (and indeed can never marry because they’re of the same sex). In the case of a heterosexual it also manifests in sexual attraction toward individuals to whom the one experiencing the sexual attraction isn’t married.

      While both the heterosexual and homosexual should (arguably) repent of these instances of sexual attraction (because they’re arguably sinful), I’m not sure they need repent of their fallen-ness per se. That is, repent for the fact that, despite having been redeemed, they still inhabit a fallen body of flesh whose broken sexuality sometimes gives rise to attractions that are outside God’s design.

  5. Ian Shaw April 9, 2015 at 8:29 am #

    I think Denny might need to clarify the definition of “attraction”.

    Our church has a men’s study on sexual idolatry and with the book we went through, it broke down the difference between just noticing someone and then taking the jump to fantasy in our mind(which then is lust and therefore sinful). Example, as a male, I can notice a female jogger on the road and it’s not sinful. It’s the long stare/second glance that takes it from an observation to fantasy (lust, ergo adultery).

    Denny, can a man admit or say “she’s an attractive woman” and leave it at that….without going into fantasy/lust and have that not be sinful (just by saying someone is attractive)?

    • ian Shaw April 9, 2015 at 8:41 am #

      Though I know my proclivities enough that if I see a woman jogging, I intentionally ignore her, as to not cause myself to stumble.

    • Chris Ryan April 10, 2015 at 5:03 pm #

      I think that’s an insurmountable problem, though, Ian. Denny is trying to redefine the word “attraction” to mean the word “lust”. The latter is clearly sinful, the former is not. Lust is pretty intense and generally involves fantasizing. Finding someone physically appealing is nowhere near the same thing. No amount of pretzel making will twist attraction into lust. And per Deuteronomy 4:2 even attempting to do so is a dangerous exercise.

      • Johnny Mason April 10, 2015 at 5:07 pm #

        I dont think Dr. Burke is attributing attraction to lust. I think he is attributing sexual attraction to lust. There is a difference. You can think Brad Pitt is attractive, but not be sexually attracted to him.

        Maybe, Dr. Burke can clarify this.

        • Denny Burk April 10, 2015 at 11:43 pm #

          It’s certainly possible to apprehend beauty without experiencing sexual attraction. I’m arguing that as soon as apprehension of beauty turns into desire for sinful sex, then you have crossed the line into sinful territory.

          • ian Shaw April 13, 2015 at 8:41 am #

            Agreed.

  6. Scott McCauley April 9, 2015 at 9:01 am #

    I have to say that I agree with Ian Shaw and buddyglass. I fail to see the difference between one proclivity and the other. Neither should be fed. Both should be resisted. We shouldn’t label someone else’s sin to be “worse” than our own. Of course we both need to resist sin and certainly to never embrace it.

    • buddyglass April 9, 2015 at 10:08 am #

      To walk back (slightly) what I said, I think it’s appropriate for someone who experiences same-sex attraction to pray and ask God to miraculously restore his or her sexuality to a state that is “less” disordered. That is, to heterosexuality. That said, such a person shouldn’t feel as if he or she is failing as a Christian should God decline to answer that prayer.

      • Scott McCauley April 9, 2015 at 10:49 am #

        That’s a good point, buddyglass. It would be hard to envision eventually having a God-honoring traditional marriage when one is struggling with “same sex attraction”, even if one manages to keep it to just a “proclivity”. Perhaps that provides a distinction from the seemingly parallel prayer “Lord, give me eyes for my wife only.”

      • ian Shaw April 9, 2015 at 10:54 am #

        True, God can and does restore all of us through sanctification. I would submit that someone experiencing SSA to pray for healing just the same as someone struggling with lust of someone of the opposite sex as well. Though the longer someone has “struggled” with something, the longer it usually takes (though I’ve seen some quick changes in people, praise God).

        We’re all broken and I think we should always strive to put our focus on Christ, walk in the spirit, pray and allow the Holy Spirit to change our habits and inclinations to put more focus on Him.

  7. Jay Ryder April 9, 2015 at 7:13 pm #

    Guys, did you take the time to read Denny’s article and not just the blog post? He answers every one of your “concerns” fully and clearly in the article. Plainly, as the title of the article states, Denny is dealing with sexual attraction, same sex and otherwise. If you haven’t read the whole thing, you should

    • Scott McCauley April 10, 2015 at 9:39 am #

      You were right, Jay. I’m embarrassed. Thanks for calling me out. 🙂

  8. Scott McCauley April 10, 2015 at 9:38 am #

    In your conclusion, Denny, you call for prayer for the transformation of the same-sex oriented, and you rightly point out that the aim of the transformation should not be heterosexuality, but holiness. You closely follow, with “Many such Christians
    report partial or complete changes in their attractions after conversion—sometimes
    all at once, but more often over a period of months and years.” Here, you do not make a clarification of these “changes” as to whether they are toward heterosexuality or toward holiness. It’s as if the distinction you just made (that the goal is holiness) had been lost. You go on to say that there are “a great many who also report ongoing struggles with same-sex attraction.” Here, you do not say “extra-marital attraction”, but “same-sex attraction”. You even urge them to “fight those desires as long as they persist, no matter how natural those desires may feel.” I hate to argue from silence, but this gives the impression that the goal is the “more natural” heterosexuality and not necessarily simply holiness.

    In your essay, you go to great lengths to make clear that extra-marital heterosexual desire is no less sinful than homosexual desire. But in your call to action you seem to lose sight of this commonality. You seem to shift the aim back from holiness to heterosexuality. Perhaps you could clarify by calling also for heterosexuals to “fight those [extra-marital] desires as long as they persist, no matter how natural those desires may feel.”

    In short, I think what is missing from your conclusion is a description of what a transformed, formerly same-sex oriented individual would look like. Would it be an individual who experiences only heterosexual attractions, or would it be an individual how experiences no extra-marital attractions, just as would be the case with a transformed heterosexual? Such an exposition would grant you the opportunity to reinforce your declaration that “they are us.”

    Excellent piece, though! You bring clarity to many aspects of this discussion where there has been great confusion.

    • Brian Sanders April 10, 2015 at 8:50 pm #

      Scott: I am amazed that you can find fault with Denny’s article. Really?

    • Denny Burk April 10, 2015 at 11:40 pm #

      Scott, good point. It probably could use some clarification. I see holiness may involve a variety of experiences. For some, holiness may be accompanied by emerging heterosexual attraction aimed toward the covenant of marriage. For others, holiness may not lead to marriage. I’m saying that we should welcome and encourage all the possibilities. But you are correct that extra-marital attractions are what all sinners have to wrestle against–and that means all of us.

  9. Mark D. Otley April 10, 2015 at 10:58 pm #

    On page 100, it says “this begs the questions ….”. No. No, it doesn’t. A thousand times, “No!”

    It *raises* those questions. Begging the question is a logical fallacy in which the conclusion is included in the premises. When something causes one to ask questions, it is raising those questions, not begging them.

  10. Christiane Smith April 11, 2015 at 9:52 am #

    The fact that people here have called for ‘clarification’ of terms and that Denny has responded to that request is a sign that this is a positive post where the goal is to understand one anothers intent and meaning. I wish Christian posts reflected the need for patience and understanding of the concerns of others . . . that position of humility points to the better way of Our Lord.

  11. Don Johnson April 13, 2015 at 2:56 pm #

    I think Denny makes a fundamental mistake in thinking that one can sin without a choice being made because he confuses this with inadvertent sin. For example, a practicing Jew in the first century might have come into inadvertent contact with something that makes them ritually unclean, so they would choose to go through a purification ritual to handle this, so they would not do an inadvertent sin by doing something at the temple in a ritually unclean state.

    • Jay Ryder April 16, 2015 at 8:33 pm #

      Don, Denny addresses this indirectly. When you bring up defilement from unclean things outside of us, you are speaking of pollution of the world. Denny is specifically dealing with the heart issue – our desire, our sin nature, indwelling sin. Your example of inadvertent sin doesn’t apply because we are responsible for our own sin.

      Also, remember that Jesus told the Pharisees, it is not that which is outside of us that defiles us, but it that which is within us – our heart. Denny’s correct.

  12. James Bradshaw May 1, 2015 at 6:52 pm #

    I have a problem with the word “repentance” when it refers to involuntary motions of the mind. Repentance denotes a possibility that you can change by effort of the will and that you will make a deliberate choice to act differently in the future. How do you “choose” where your mind and emotions lead? You can’t. You might as well say you will “choose” to be taller.

    You can only experience and foster a sense of spiritual regret over our own condition and ask for this to change.

    There are certain things about places my mind goes that I regret, though I realize I perhaps contributed to this as a youth (and am still feeling the repercussions of them). I can’t very well do anything about it, though. I can only sigh and hope for spiritual assistance. Am I “sorry”? Well, no, not in the same way I am if I act in anger towards someone and say something I wish I had not. Now that, I can work to change.

  13. Ken Temple May 4, 2015 at 11:30 am #

    Denny,
    Excellent article. Definitely needed and thorough. Unfortunately, 20 pages of in-depth analysis like yours will not be analyzed in the sound bite media and “yes or no” questioning of modern journalism.

    The problem seems to me that the majority of our western culture, regular man on the street, and secular non-Christians, journalists, politicians, etc. do not consider any kind of thoughts, desires, fantasies, imaginations as sinful. We here people say all the time, “nothing wrong with looking, as long as we don’t touch”, and phrases like “eye candy”, etc.

    This kind of thinking goes against the Biblical analysis of the heart of human beings and the roots of sin – Genesis 6:5, Matthew 5:21-30; Mark 7:20-23; Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 7:14-8:13; Colossians 3:5-10.

    One thing I disagreed with though, is that you seemed to tie all the temptations of Jesus to His temptations in the sufferings and crucifixion (garden to cross ?) (page 103 – Hebrews 4:15 seen in the light of Hebrews 2:18, seems to overlook the 3 types of temptation in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. ) I agree that Jesus’ temptations did not include every single individual type of temptation that humans experience, but I do think that “tempted in every way” includes the 3 categories of temptations in Matthew 4 and Luke 4 – of “lust of the flesh” (food, sex, sleep, etc. – “turn the stones to bread”; 2. Lust of the eyes” – “I will give you all these kingdoms if You bow down to me” and 3. “the boastful pride of life” – “throw Yourself off the temple edge”, etc. (from Luke 4 and Matthew 4, and I John 2:15-16 and parallel with the temptation to Eve in Genesis 3 – “the fruit was good for food” (lust of flesh), “pleasing to the eyes”, and “could make one wise like God” (pride).

  14. Ken Temple May 4, 2015 at 11:59 am #

    Denny,
    Your analysis of “orientation” and “temptation” and desire and the Greek term epithumia was excellent and the whole discussion of the teleological aspect of when desires are sinful – the purpose and object of the desire as the key to determining the sinfulness of the desire.

    Your analysis of James 1:13-14 with Matthew 5:28 is especially helpful.

    The evidence of Augustine’s earlier thought on concupiscence and lust/desire vs. his later musings was helpful – I did not know that. Thank you for digging that out for us.

    On page 104 – The discussion of the fact that it is more intense of a temptation to not give in to it – and the quote from Leon Morris was very good and needs to be emphasized. (and was very convicting, when thought about my own temptations and giving in to them.)

    “This points us to the glorious irony of Jesus’ sinless nature. It did not lesses his experience of temptation but only intensified it.” (page 104)

    Wow! This needs to be emphasized and preached on and talked about a lot more.

    This should stir all of us to consider more deeply our sinful hearts in our gluttony, anger, greed, and heterosexual lust and need for deeper internal repentance.

    These other two statements stood out to me:

    “Temptation had no landing pad in Jesus’ heart nor did it have a launching pad from Jesus’ heart.” (page 105)

    “This aspect of Jesus’ impeccability ought to invoke worship when we really think about it.” (page 107)

    The discussion of not using “orientation” was needed also. We should call it “people who experience same sex attractions and temptations” and Christians who struggle with them.

    Another thing that is missing is that some Lesbians have admitted that their Lesbianism was a choice based on other up-bringing and environmental factors and responses and her feisty nature and rebellion and challenge to traditional ideas of being a girl and a lady. Camille Paglia made that point very clear on one of Dennis Prager’s radio shows. see below:

    https://apologeticsandagape.wordpress.com/2014/09/29/feminist-and-lesbian-camille-paglia-homosexuality-is-not-an-inborn-trait/

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