It is being argued in some evangelical quarters that same-sex attraction (SSA) or homosexual attraction is “natural” and that it SSA (sexual desire for someone of the same sex) is not per se sinful. One writer who defends this view quotes John Cheever who wrote that every attractive man was like a loaded pistol. He writes, “I think that will help me next time I see a beautiful man and find myself wanting to be united to him. I am, at one level, just responding to beauty as I am created to respond to it. There is little I can do to avoid this natural response. We are all wired to appreciate beauty. That’s just how we work.” This writer seeks to address this problem from the assumption that same-sex sexual behavior is sinful but SSA is not. As another writer puts it, SSA is a form of temptation but temptation is not sin. I respond by conceding that temptation is not sin. Our sinless Lord was “tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). What is in question, however, is whether SSA is temptation or whether it is in fact sin.
The Creational Order
First, we should not accept the premise that SSA is natural. What does natural mean? If by it we mean, “part of the creational fabric” or “reflective of the divine order in creation,” then certainly SSA is not natural. Advocates of the view that SSA is temptation and not sin agree that the creational pattern was heterosexual. God created humanity in two sexes, male and female (Gen 1:27). Our Lord himself confirmed this understanding of the creational pattern. When the Pharisees approached our Lord to try to trap him in a question regarding divorce and re-marriage, Jesus responded by measuring the temporary Mosaic laws against the permanent moral and natural law:
Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.(Matt 19:4–6; ESV)
There is a creational pattern. In Romans 1, Paul refers to the natural order. We will return to Romans 1 momentarily. Heterosexual sex within heterosexual marriage is the divinely intended order. It is the order that Jesus re-affirmed. When the Pharisees tried to leverage the natural pattern with the temporary Mosaic law again, Jesus replied by again appealing to his intention in creation: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (v. 8).
That phrase, from the beginning it was not so” is, if the reader will pardon the pun, pregnant with significance for this discussion. When Jesus thinks of nature, he thinks not, in the first instance of what has happened to us after the fall, but the way things were intended and ordered before the fall.
It is true that people, after the fall, because of the vitiating power of sin, desire all manner of sinful things naturally, i.e., according to their fallen natures, but that does not make those desires righteous or normal. In the state of sin, in Adam, our inclinations are warped. Our intellect is warped. Our affections are warped. We do know, will, and love freely according to our corrupted natures but those objects of our affection, those things that we will, those things that we seek to know do not thereby become good or right.
Paul makes this quite clear in Romans 1:16–27:
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged (μετήλλαξαν) natural relations for those that are contrary to nature (εἰς τὴν παρὰ φύσιν); and the men likewise gave up natural (τὴν φυσικὴν χρῆσιν) relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error (Rom 1:26–27; ESV).
Paul was familiar with Greco-Roman homosexuality. It was open display in the cities. He could not miss it. He first addressed what we today called Lesbian affection and sexual relationships in v.26. Notice on what basis he condemns and rejects it: nature. This is an essential biblical category and it was a category with which historic Christianity was quite familiar but it is a category that has been forgotten by modern and late-modern evangelicals. There are a few reasons for this neglect. The first is the influence of Pietism (not piety). Pietism is the quest for a certain quality of religious experience. In this theology grace (salvation) is thought more or less to wipe out nature. This is the view of nature and grace that gives us record and book burning as religious acts. It tells boys to get rid of their baseball cards as “unspiritual.” The second reason is that evangelicalism is the creature of Modern culture, which has been at war with nature for most of its history. Evangelicals have simply baptized the culture in this regard. Thus, in face of the third wave of the sexual revolution, evangelicals lack this basic biblical and Christian category by which to understand what is happening.
Paul knows natural revelation, he also knows special revelation. Both tell him that there is natural order. In a sane time and place this would not need to be detailed but any biology or physiology teacher (or any farmer) can tell one the facts of nature. In its very essence, SSA is a transgression of the natural order.
The Order Of Grace
In 1 Corinthians 6 the Apostle Paul addresses sexual immorality quite pointedly. Just before verse 9 he has been remonstrating with the Corinthian congregation for their ungodly way of resolving disputes among them, by taking them to the secular courts to be adjudicated by the pagans. Then he turns to another catalogue of sins:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral (πόρνοι), nor idolaters (εἰδωλολάτραι), nor adulterers (μοιχοὶ), nor homosexuals (ἀρσενοκοῖται), nor the effeminate (μαλακοὶ)…. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor 6:9–11).
Paul was not saying that sinners cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is composed of sinners redeemed by the grace of God. Those who continue in their former way of life, however, who profess faith in Christ but who live like pagans will not inherit the Kingdom because they have never entered the Kingdom. They have no saving relation to King Jesus by grace alone, through faith alone.
The first category of specific category of sin he addresses is sexual immorality generally. This includes heterosexual and homosexual immorality but then he turns his attention to two distinct homosexual groups. To put it politely, Paul addresses those who were sexually dominant in the relationship and those who were sexually submissive. These are almost technical uses of the categories. For more on this see the resources below, especially the brief survey of the New Testament’s language on homosexuality.
Perhaps the key clause in these verses, however, is the first part of v. 11: “such were some of you.” Idolatry, drunkeness, sexual immorality, homosexuality (of both varieties) characterized the lives of the Corinthian Christians before they professed faith but they were not to characterize their lives after their profession of faith.
Given Paul’s condemnation of sexual desire and behavior that transgresses the boundaries of nature, which are inherently disordered, and his condemnation of immoral sexual attraction and behavior (πόρνοι), including homosexual desire and behavior, we can hardly think that he would agree that SSA is per se (in itself, in the abstract) not merely a temptation.
Scripture does, after all, regulate not only our actions but also our desires. Our Lord said that “whoever looks at a woman with the intention of lusting after her has already committed adultery” (Matt 5:28) speaks directly to the question of sexual attraction. It is not appropriate for a man to entertain sexual desire for a woman who is not his wife. It is not mere temptation to lust after a woman. Neither is it mere temptation to lust after or to be sexually attracted to the same sex. These desires, desire for sex outside of marriage or against nature, must be, as we used to say, mortified or “put to death.” Just as they are contrary to nature so too they are not consonant with grace.
There are consequent obligations that come with the grace of God. Our Saviour does not love us because he foresees that we will believe or be good. He does not love us because we believe or because we are good. Nevertheless, because of his grace, because he has given us new life, because we have been given true faith, because we are united to him by his Holy Spirit we seek to order our lives according to his will, by his grace, in gratitude. This includes our sexual attractions and desires. In Colossians 3:5 Paul calls us unequivocally to “mortify…sexual immorality (πορνείαν), impurity (ἀκαθαρσίαν), inordinate passion (πάθος), evil desire (ἐπιθυμίαν κακήν), and covetousness, which is idolatry.” SSA is sexual immorality, it is impurity, it is an evil desire.
The Lord is not surprised by your disordered sexual attraction (heterosexual or homosexual) but neither does he approve of it. Christ obeyed in the place of sexual sinners but he did not die to ratify their disordered sexual desires. Rather, he is graciously leading his people, in his Word, by his Spirit, to order their affections in Christ, according to his moral law.
If you are interested in learning more about these issues AGR invites you to attend our July 26, 2019 conference, Rosaria Butterfield: From Victim to Guest. For more information and to register»
—R. Scott Clark, Escondido
This essay was slightly revised from the initial version to clarify the distinction between temptation and sin.
Resources On These Issues
- Gay Christians?
- Not Everything Called Christian Is
- Same-Sex Attraction Is Not A Means Of Grace Or Why We Distinguish Nature And Grace
- Rosaria Butterfield’s Alternative to Revoice
- Rosaria Butterfield: Believers Are Not Defined By Their Sins
- Rosanne, Gender Bending, and the War Against Nature (1)
- Roseanne, Gender Bending, and the War Against Nature (2)
- Homosexual and Homosexuality In The New Testament
This essay from two years ago has a helpful section on affections, on which I did not touch in this essay, which complements my argument here.
Surely part of this boils down to how far we take the doctrine of regeneration? I think there is danger in either an underdeveloped or overdeveloped view. The latter might suggest that we, as Christians, have received sufficient power as to make us able to reverse the effects of the fall in ourselves, so as not have a corrupted nature (a nature that for some produces SSA). But the emphasis in mortification is not to reverse the fall but to starve it of oxygen and life, and instead live to God in Christ by the Spirit whilst we await a new creation. Thus, it might be argued, it is legitimate for someone to claim that their SSA is not according to nature (in the Romans 1 sense) and yet hold it in check through all the means that God provides. Otherwise, one result may be to leave people filled to the brim with condemnation even though they are fulfilling the instruction in Col 3:5.
To be clear, I am not arguing for perfectionism. I’ve argued against it here.
My case concerns 1) how we should think about SSA; 2) whether SSA is even a valid category.
Of course some Christians will struggle with the sin of homosexuality for their entire lives just as other Christians will struggle with the sin of idolatry. We all have sins of which we need to repent daily. Mortification and vivification are part of the daily Christian life. We will do this until we die.
What I want to avoid is normalizing homosexuality. It is not normal according to nature and it is not consonant with grace.
As I mentioned above, I doubt that SSA is a helpful category since it changes the nature of the question. Attraction is a vague term here. We’re talking about sexual interest in persons of the same sex. This is why we have the term “homosexuality.” It denotes same-sex sexual attraction, as was indicated in the now deleted article to which I linked on the Living Out site.
Even the title of the site is problematic, isn’t it? It’s an attempt to normalize “coming out” in in the Christian church. It’s an attempt to affirm a category of sin as something other than sin.
Yes, we all need to “come out,” as it were, as sinners but also need to hear the church say, “repent and believe” and “die to sin” etc.
That’s why the gospel is such good news! Jesus obeyed in the place of and died for sinners. He was raised for our justification. Those who struggle with the sin of homosexuality have a Savior in Jesus just as heterosexual sinners do. We all need to reckon honestly with our sins and with the wonderful grace of God toward sinners in Christ.
You can view homosexuality as a plain-and-simple variety of lust, or you can view it (at least for some) as a condition and orientation in which people find themselves — the result of inheriting a fallen nature, or the result of traumatic formative experiences. In which case, controlling the lust won’t, by itself, alter the underlying condition.
Salvation in Christ entails a delay, as we wait for a new and perfect body, but in the meantime we cannot necessarily expect to have our nature repaired to the extent that we never struggle with certain temptations that arise according to our fallen flesh.
1. Again, I’m NOT teaching perfectionism. I am opposing the notion that homosexuality is a mere “attraction” or “orientation” but not sin. Scripture seems clearly to indicate that in its very nature a sexual desire for a person of the same sex is sin.
2. Of course homosexuality is the product of the fall. So is theft, idolatry, lying, and covetousness. That doesn’t make them less than sin.
3. The argument is being made that mere desire is not sin. My case is that some desires are, by their nature, sin.
4. We’re not now discussing how to address homosexuality. That’s another discussion. What we’re doing here is trying to diagnose the issue. Is homosexuality something other than sin such that it only becomes sin when one acts upon those desires? That is the premise on which the Living Out site is based.
I think of SSA as the sin of coveting, wanting something that you can only get by breaking God’s law. Like any other sin that Christians are called to mortify, SSA is a sin that must be condemned, and we must struggle against it.
I wonder if the very term SSA is not itself misleading and problematic? Perhaps it inherently re-defines the problem and creates confusion? I mean to say that SSA (homosexual orientation) is concupiscent in its essence. “Attraction” is too benign. I was “attracted” to the woman who became my wife but that attraction, that interest was not sinful in itself. Lust is concupiscent. David’s lust for Bathsheba was concupiscent, it was not pure. He did exactly what our Lord condemned in Matt 5:28. There is no innocent, pure same-sex attraction. It is inherently disordered and lustful (concupiscent).
I think this is crucial and that you are on to something-what exactly does “SSA” really mean. If professing Christians are discussing a matter they should be drilling down deep and use proper biblical terms. The “SSA” proponents are trying to create an artificial DMZ area out of thin air. My understanding is that, as far as males go, the NT only talks about a passive and an “active” participant. The “SSA” proponents should be forced to define (in family friendly terms so to speak) what they are really talking about when they say they have “SSA,” and they should be required to use biblical language and terms (if they are professing Christians). It seems to me they mean more than they just want to go to movies together and eat at nice restaurants. The use of “SSA” may suffice in a broad societal setting but it should not be allowed in a serious biblical context without clear definition. Language is being manipulated here.
I always tell my students, “question the premise” and this premise (SSA) needs careful investigation. “DMZ” seems an accurate descriptor.