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
Wouldn’t this be an argument saying that temptation is a sin? But as author of Hebrews says of Christ, “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:18 ESV)
Good question. The answer is no, and I deal with Hebrews 4:15 extensively in my paper.
Agreed…and thanks for posting and for your work on the subject. This is not unlike the Creation vs. Evolution debate in which the tendency today is to interpret Scripture in view of cultural “consensus” rather than interpreting the world and our own experience through the lenses of Scripture.
I would like to have your paper if you would e-mail it to me.
Grace and peace,
Send me your email address through the “Contact” page linked above.
I agree with what is written above. We could add that how can we limit sin to just behavior when we are commanded to love God with our whole being. And can those who believe we are saved by grace be afraid to include more than just behavior when talking about sin?
But when it comes to sexual orientation, those who do not have same-sex sexual orientation need to remember their own sins when talking about having sinful orientations.
Arminian: No, but…
I’ve year to hear a good explanation for why same-sex orientation isn’t simply treated as a specific pattern of temptation. And temptation is by definition not sin. Or, like alcoholism, a predisposition toward engaging in a particular sin. A predisposition that can be resisted, just as those with a predisposition toward addiction resist the temptation to use potentially addicting substances.
I do think same-sex orientation is disordered and a consequence of fallen creation, just as is the case for other predispositions toward specific sins.
I think there is a valid distinction to make in how the words “temptation” and “orientation” are used.
“Temptation” is “I feel like doing something the Bible calls ‘sin’.” We know or can show it is wrong and we do not accept it as right.
“Orientation” seems to mean “I have a pattern of emotions and inclinations that, if acted upon, would lead to that which the Bible calls ‘sin’ – and I accept this pattern as fundamental to my personhood before God.”
Temptation itself is not sinful, but the internal condition that gives temptation its power is a result of sin. Orientation, as used in sga debate, is the acceptance of sinful dispositions and thus is not a type of temptation, but a type of surrender to it.
To me, orientation seems like little more than a predisposition to certain kinds of temptation. Denny argues the predisposition is itself sinful. I’m arguing for a lesser designation. “Disordered” perhaps. In the same way that, for example, some people are born with physical deformities. Their physical bodies are disordered as a result of fallen creation.
Accepting that one is “disordered” in a way that predisposes one to particular temptations needn’t require that one deny the sinfulness of those sins or resign one’s self to succumbing to temptation.
I’m totally okay with the idea that some people are born with physiological predispositions toward certain sins. Rage and addiction come to mind. Despair. Indifference, in the case of those born with sociopathic tendencies. And, possibly, same-sex attraction. In all cases God empowers individuals to live in a manner that honors him despite the disordered state of their physical bodies (and brains).
“Will they will always have the predisposition, the bodily response, to alcohol that drives them to drunkeness. Probably, unless God miraculously heals this biological component of their disordered nature”
I think this bit explains why people react so negatively to Denny’s position that SSA is sin. Most people equate “the predisposition to be erotically attracted to members of the same sex” as “same-sex attraction”. So when they hear Denny say “SSA is sin” they take it to mean he believes they are in a perpetual state of unrepentant sin until such time as they no longer experience SSA.
Given his elaboration in this comments section, that doesn’t appear to be an accurate description of what Denny actually believes. I’d say, though, that if that’s the case then Denny doesn’t just believe “SSA is sin” but something more nuanced. “SSA + a certain attitude toward SSA = sin”, maybe.
I’m curious, would you agree with what Nick Roen has written here:
At first blush, I guess I wouldn’t agree. But I bet that if we had a chance to sit down and define our terms, we might not be as far apart as it initially seems. I think Nick and I probably share the same basic anthropological framework. Because of that underlying unity, I would be hopeful that we might find ourselves on the same page.
David R Bootj
Hi Dr Burk, May I please have a copy of the paper you presented along with Wesley and Preston.
My email is email@example.com
Denny, you hit the nail on the head. We are all sin-oriented. We are all born sinners, through and through. Our natural inclination is to sin. We sin by nature. So to defend SSA because it is natural is to defend sin. Might as well defend coveting, lying, stealing, immorality, and godlessness, since these all come so naturally to us.
I would be interested in your paper. Thanks.
Send me your email address using the “Contact” form linked above.
Please email a copy of your paper to me.
I would be careful about dismissing SSA as holistically sinful. It assumes that there is nothing good in homo-emotionality either. A major component of a SSA (and a healthy OSA) individual. As seen between Jonathan&David/Jesus&John, there is dignity in same-gender, non-sexual closeness. To cast all SSA into the category of sinfulness might not be too different than just considering a lobotomy is in order for the SSA’d.
At our panel, both Wesley and Preston argued that SSA cannot be reduced to sexual desire for the same sex. They argued that SSA includes non-erotic elements. I answered that concern in the paper and in the panel discussion.
Sure SSA includes non-erotic elements. But that’s not what makes it SSA. The erotics elements are. A healthy OSA person should be capable of having close, emotional, non-erotic friendships with members of the same sex. The relevant difference between such an individual and someone experiencing SSA is the eroticism.
Without having watched the panel discussion, I’m kind of at a loss as to why Hill and Sprinkle would think it relevant to mention that SS relationships typically involve more than base eroticism.
A big thank you for providing clarity to this issue. Both your and Dr. Mohler’s writings, especially on this issue, have been a great help.
Related to this – would appreciate anyone’s input. My old(er – by 7 years) brother, who doesn’t profess Christ at all, recently decided to marry his parter. He’s aware of the biblical stance that we (my wife and I) take on the view of same-sex marriage, and sort of tolerates it. As best as I understand the Scriptures, a biblical view would be to still love him as both my brother and someone that Christ died for. Someone that needs to hear the Gospel – not someone to shun or go “all Westboro Baptist” on them. But to make it clear that, although the State (in this case, California) says their marriage is valid, biblically it isn’t. Yeah…fine line to walk here.
Denny, a great piece – thank you. It would be correct to infer that even our best actions, under divine scrutiny, are tainted. Strangled by our own ego, trapped in ourselves – as Luther said, “incurvatus in se”, human goodness (both internal and external), springing as it does from the divine image, original pollution still pervades and discolors them. But if I were to categorize SSA, it would not be neutral, and certainly not good, but intrinsically disordered, not just because of original sin, but the attraction itself. How would you frame things?
Please send me a copy.
If having a SS sexual orientation is per se sinful then is it possible to repent of experiencing SSA?
Is the necessary evidence that someone has repented of SSA that he or she no longer experiences SSA?
If that’s not the case, then what does it mean to repent of SSA?
If it is the case, then must we regard those who still experience SSA (but not OSA) as unrepentant sinners and, as such, outside the Church?
Buddy, none of us–gay or straight–will have our sinfulness completely eradicated in this life. We will all be struggling mightily until we cash our chips in. So repentance does not equal the eradication if our sinful impulses. Repentance is a way of life, our daily response to daily sin. And we can experience real growth over time, but never perfection on this side if glory.
That means that some of our brothers and sisters will wrestle mightily against SSA for their entire lives. The evidence of grace in their life will not be the absence if SSA. The evidence of grace will be their daily warring against it. That is how it is for every Christian, not just those with SSA. We are all in this together.
I don’t disagree with any of that. But I do think SSA is nothing if not the persistent presence of the temptation to lust after or enter into erotic relationships with members of the same sex. Persistent temptation that can, and should, be striven against. That seems to match how you would describe a state of ongoing repentance from SSA. So, regardless of whether we agree about SSA being per se sinful, we seem to both envision the same “end game” for a believer who earnestly seeks to live righteously but has yet to be miraculously delivered from SSA.
When people hear you say “SSA is sinful” I think what they perceive you to be saying is that “someone who experiences SSA is like one who continually and habitually engages in ongoing sin”. Like, say, a married man who keeps a mistress. Presumably that is not how you view Hill and Sprinkle, despite the fact that they continue to experience SSA.
In your February post “Is temptation a sin”, you suggested that “the Bible teaches that it is sinful to have a desire for illicit sex”. Does this mean that it is sinful for a heterosexual man to be sexually attracted to his fiancée?
No, I address that question in the paper. The short answer is this. All sexual attraction that is not ordered to the covenant of marriage is sinful. That means that some heterosexual attraction is sinful and some isn’t. Thus it is possible for a man to be sexually attracted to his wife to be and it not be sinful. I think such anticipation for the sex within marriage is what is celebrated in the early chapters of the Song of Solomon. The key is that the sexual attraction has to have the covenant of marriage as its object.
Since behavior springs from interior passions, and Jesus brought out the true meaning of the law (Matt 5), then its shock value has as its end the interior parallel response – “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18). Luther described the Christian as one bathed in repentance, so I don’t think it follows that repentance entails negation of all interior sinful desires; to the contrary, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (I John). The already / not yet cry of the Christian life, should be felt in one with SSA, no less than with other sins.
At error here, with ones who want to neutralize SSA, is a wrong-headed notion that the Christian life is tranquil and/or only freely chosen paths are deemed sinful. The Christian life is not tranquil, with only blips of sin from time to time. It is a battle, and requires not only due diligence and watchfulness, but a mortification, a dismembering of sorts (Matt 5:27-30), a fundamental denying of oneself (Luke 9:23) a self-loathing capable of the descriptor ‘hate’ (John 12:25) and even death (John 12:24). Paradoxically, due to regeneration, ‘dismemberment’, ‘denial’ and ‘hate’ of oneself (properly understood as denying/hating that which is set against God’s reign and rule within us), and ‘death’ are an easy yoke and a light burden.
A question I have is, who is Paul referring to in Romans 1? Everyone in Romans 1 has SSA by choice or otherwise (some say they do not and perversely contravene their OSA), but does everyone who has SSA fall under its progressive indictment? Is Paul talking about some grand sweeping covenant break and accompanying ‘giving over’ by God in judgment, a kind of grand historical sweep, or is he making a blanket statement about each and every person with SSA? What do we say to a believer who is committed, but who nonetheless struggles with SSA? If they ask you, where do these feelings/attractions come from, do you point them to Romans 1 and imply their desires spring from their personal and progressive rebellion? Pastorally, establishing SSA as sinful, is one thing, but applying it is much harder. I’d love to hear.
Not sure how to articulate this…. I agree with Hodge and the orthodox, Reformed anthropology.
That being said, does it really help the SSA discussion? IOW, all we do is tainted by the corruption – OSA as well as SSA.
Seems there are three positions:
1. Neither OSA or SSA are sinful because we do not have a sin nature that corrupts us pervasively (Pelagian?)
2. Both OSA and SSA are sinful because they flow out of our sin nature (Reformed)
3. OSA is not sinful but SSA is (Evangelical?)
#3 seems to lack a biblical anthropology too.
With #1 and #2, you still have to have a discussion of the differences between OSA and SSA, including the rightness or wrongness of the sexual behavior. Saying they are both polluted by the sin nature really tells us little (although what it does tell us is critically important!)
OSA, though tainted by sin, is consistent with creation. SSA, though tainted by sin, is disordered (I like Buddy’s terminology and analogies).
Is there another “layer” of sinfulness to SSA that OSA does not have, apart from either the pollution of sin or the behavior manifested?
I think your numbers 2 and 3 are incorrect. OSA is not sinful per se. SSA is sinful per se. There was nothing unholy about Adam’s sexual relationship with Eve. His OSA was good, right, and holy. Likewise, when OSA is ordered to the covenant of marriage it is holy, right, and good. SSA is never under any circumstance holy, right, and good.
Denny, thank you for standing strong and speaking truth to this issue.
You are indeed a lone voice among the known voices. But there is a remnant with you out here. Thanks.
Dr. Burk- Once again, thank you for your common-sense and faithful-to Scripture teachings on these difficult subjects, and for your courage in handling them here. I too will contact for a copy of your paper.
In a more recent response (above), you wrote “All sexual attraction that is not ordered to the covenant of marriage is sinful.”
I completely agree with that statement. Jesus plainly taught that if a man looked with lust on a woman, he had essentially committed adultery with her in his heart. The 2 sins are not equal, but they ARE both sins. Notice Jesus NEVER said “if a man looks upon another man with lust”, as He knew full well that this was totally outside the realm of normal behavior.
To further amplify your excellent response, ANY sexual activity and contact outside of a Biblically-enjoined marriage, is sinful. Any one. Every one. And God, Who invented marriage, defines for us what marriage is. Thanks again
My big question for you, Denny, is whether you believe Jesus experienced sexual attraction. It was apparently not God’s will for him to be married, so I don’t think his desires could be said to be ordered towards marriage. Does this mean that he had what we in modern parlance would call an asexual orientation?
I’ve seen you address Hebrews 4:15 elsewhere. I should frankly admit that I don’t think the view that Jesus was asexual is compatible with this passage. It takes too much meaning out of this passage to say that Jesus didn’t really experience sexual temptation in any way that resembles the way that most of us do, especially given the play that sexual sin receives in the New Testament. I haven’t found your past arguments to the contrary to be any more convincing than the gay-affirming readings of Romans 1 I’ve seen. In both cases, I think the basic sense of the passage is being missed. (It’s possible your paper or your book will have better arguments than the ones from you I’ve seen on your blog, but I have to admit I don’t have high expectations that this can be done without denying the clear sense of this passage.) The necessary conclusion for those of us who hold to the orthodox doctrine of the sinlessness of Christ is that there’s a pre-moral kind of sexual attraction.
What seems to me the obvious solution is to realize that there’s a large space between basic sexual attraction and sexual behavior. Just because I’ve never had sex doesn’t mean that I’ve achieved perfect sexual purity. But I don’t think that either my SSA or my OSA (I routinely experience both) is itself where I’ve sinned. Rather, it’s the way that has interacted with my sinful heart, whether that’s through lustful thoughts or things as simple as ingratitude. I have a fight to fight, but I don’t think it’s helpful or ultimately biblical to see that as a fight against every part of sexual attraction. I don’t see how this is Pelagian.
Thanks for the feedback, Jeremy. Send me your email address, and I’ll send you the paper: https://www.dennyburk.com/contact.
Jeremy, as you await Denny’s response, if you don’t mind, I’m curious, it doesn’t seem to follow that Jesus would have to be asexual to fulfill Hebrews 4:15; he would just have to 1) not have his inner motions infiltrated by original sin (which is the orthodox view, so no problem there), and 2) he must keep his internal sexual attraction free of sin (which he did and is also the orthodox view). SSA would be ‘intrinsically’ disordered, and sinful; whereas OSA, in itself, is neither, necessarily. Some advocate a third category – ‘brokenness’, but if our best works are tainted by our inherited pollution, then it would seem that our brokenness is as well.
I tried to post this earlier, but I see no indication it’s even in moderation, so I’ll try again. Apologies if this is a duplicate.
First off, I’m one of those people that advocates the third category of “brokenness.” I think there are cases where this clearly shows up. For example, take a person with cystic fibrosis. That disease is known to be genetic and outside the person’s control. It also leads to suboptimal health and often early death. I think it’s clearly broken, but it’s at best extremely counter-intuitive to call it “sinful.” In Scripture, we even have the example of the blind man whose blindness was not due to sin (making the category of “sinful” not work), and yet was something Jesus healed (indicating there was something broken that needed fixing.) I don’t think the existence of this category can reasonably be disputed, although the question of what parts (if any) of SSA fit is a reasonable question to disagree on.
I think your distinction between SSA and OSA obscures the real issue. The question of what makes a desire problematic is simply whether it would be sinful to fulfill it. Insofar as by “SSA” we’re talking about a desire for sex with someone of the same sex, it would be sinful to fulfill it. But insofar as OSA is a desire for sex with a person married to someone else, for example, it is also sinful to fulfill it. The desire is not good just because it doesn’t fit one particular reason (the sex of the person) it couldn’t be fulfilled morally.
Unless you disagree with that analysis of desire, you’re claiming is that Jesus was able to control who he was attracted to. This isn’t how human sexual attraction works. There are people who have an asexual orientation and are fully human, but there are not people who can control who they find themselves sexually attracted to. In recent decades, we’ve even come to be able to examine things scientifically and have determined that sexual attraction in general has a significant involuntary component. Thus, your claim about Jesus amounts to a claim that he was incarnated as something other than fully human. This is the heresy of docetism.
Good teaching on sin. We tend to hang it on behavior it as though it is only what we do, especially what we do willfully. However, I have to note two things:
1) Jesus taught that even our desires were sinful
2) The law of Moses provided for unintentional sin
The thing about our desires is that they aren’t monolithic. We are each a bundle of competing desires. We can’t decide to do anything without overcoming some desire(s) that won’t be realized. First, I think it’s a mistake to lump temptation in with this pattern as so many do. Jesus was tempted but didn’t sin, whereas temptation typically involves sin for us. Second, it’s a mistake to link culpability directly with the will. The will is certainly tied up in it, but the way Paul answers the objection he addresses in Romans 9 indicates that we are culpable regardless.
It doesn’t matter, however, when we find justification in Christ and rest in his work. To plead our will or our behavior is to seek justification in ourselves and that in itself is sin.
Has anyone here received Denny’s paper? I’ve requested it several times, but have not gotten a response. Thanks.
I haven’t gotten an email from you.
I found your email address on your last comment. It was an AOL address. I just emailed you a link to the paper.
Donna L. Carlaw
Thank you for holding the line on this. Do you think it is helpful to compare SSA to, say, a person who may have a genetic predisposition to alcohol?
To me, the arguments seem similar. That is, can a person be delivered from the desire to drink? AA has taught even Christians to think that the desire to drink is not sinful in and of itself. However, there are many who testify to the fact that they have been delivered from the very desire to take a drink.
It seems like the Christian should seek full deliverance, not just help to resist temptation. We are told to mortify sin, not just make peace with it by accepting it’s presence in our lives. Right? It seems that if we do not identify SSA itself as sinful, then we are not really helping kill it. Not sure.
Also, in Christ, the regenerate person is not just being changed but is also being restored to what he or she was supposed to be originally, as George MacDonald presente in his books – most clearly in Lilith, which was a kind of transforming book in my life, actually.
Shouldn’t we as Christians aim for full restoration, and not just accept the status quo? No, that will not happen until we see Christ, but again, making peace with our sinful tendencies don’t seem to be the way to go, even if a person claims to be celebate.
Besides, Christ taught that even our lustful thoughts about someone we are not married to are sinful. That goes much deeper than mere actions. After all, He said that the actions begin in the heart.
Anyway, thank you for seeing this more clearly than most even Evangelicals in our day. I am very discouraged about the direction we are heading in Evangelicalism. Don’t know what to do about it except send words of encouragement to men like you who are on the front lines of the battle for the Gospel.
Some say that these are not Gospel issues that should divide us. However, the restoration of the image of God in man that was corrupted by sin is certainly Gospel.
Prayers for you, Denny.
Dear Dr. Burk: I think you were mistaken by saying Catholic teaching is “Lust/Desire=Concupiscence[‘ your article “The Celibate Gay Christian movement: How should we think about it? The Catholic Catechism teaches lust is a capital sin (one of the seven deadly) in CCC-1866, but concupiscence is an inclination or tendency toward sin, the “tinder for sin,” in CCC-1264. Here is an analogy: The front left wheel of a shopping cart is bent to the left (concupiscence) causing the cart to have a tendency to veer off course (go into sin) when pushed. A person can allow the cart to veer off course (sinning by yielding to temptation, or by resisting this tendency (exercising virtue by cooperating with Grace, thus living the “obedience of faith.”) Temptation in itself is not sin — unless we ourselves are responsible for the cause of the temptation.