Evangelical Christians are currently debating how to think about same-sex orientation. Within this debate, one particular subject has come to the front: same-sex attraction (SSA). There are at least four different positions:
- First, some define SSA as sexual desire and therefore always sinful (Burk, Lambert, Strachan).
- Second, others see SSA as a pattern of temptation, which should be resisted (Allberry, Shaw, Butterfield with some nuance).
- Third, another group defines SSA as a condition that can be transformed into something good (Hill, Collins).
- Fourth and lastly, one group affirms the goodness of gay identity (Vines).
Of these four views, the first three views overlap so much that it would be helpful to define each of these positions to understand where and why they differ.
View 1: SSA as Sexual Desire
Denny Burk and Heath Lambert (2015), as well as Owen Strachan (2015), define orientation on the basis of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) definition. The definition reads:
“Sexual orientation refers to an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes. Sexual orientation also refers to a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviors, and membership in a community of others who share those attractions.”
On this basis, they understand SSA to be sexual attraction. And after considering the differences between Jesus’ temptation and our temptation, Burk and Lambert conclude that even the temptation to lust is itself sinful. They reason that temptation which derives from a fallen nature (like ours) is itself sinful; in contrast, they argue that Jesus only experienced external forms of temptation.
Important to Burk and Lambert’s argument, in particular, is the telos or end of a desire. They contend that if someone sexually or romantically desires a person of the same sex, then this is sinful since the end of this desire is itself sinful.
They also maintain sexually desiring a person of the opposite sex is sinful with one key difference: it’s right to be romantically attracted to someone if one intends to marry that person. In this case, the end of romantic attraction is a good: marriage.
In accordance with Christian theology and Scripture, they affirm that sexual desire or lust itself is sin.
While the other two views agree that same-sex sexual desire or lust is sinful, they do not define SSA as sexual desire like proponents of view 1 do (i.e., according to the APA). For example, Nate Collins in All But Invisible does not define SSA as sexual desire. Similarly, when Sam Allberry discusses SSA, he often speaks of being not quite right because of the fall; and on this basis, he mortifies the lustful desires of his flesh.
For this reason, the views may seem more divided than they actually are. Most people in this discussion agree with each other on the sinfulness of sexual desire or lust. The problem lies, at least in part, in definitions.
View 2: SSA as a Re-Occurring Temptation
This point recently became much more clear when Denny Burk said of Sam Allberry: “We all agree that SSA is sinful and have for years. No big differences.” Largely, the primary difference lies in the meaning of terms.
For example, Sam Allberry sees SSA as an effect of the fall. Things are not quite right in the world. In light of this, he acknowledges the need to battle sexual attraction to the same-sex. And so he mortifies the desires of the flesh. He sees lust as sinful.
And as early as 2013, Allberry can affirm “Desires for things God has forbidden are a reflection of how sin has distorted me, not how God has made me” (Is God Anti-Gay? 2013: 30; cited from here). Due to our fallen nature, Allberry knows that temptations for sexual desire will from time-to-time come. The key here, like any temptation, is to resist and overcome it by the Spirit.
Allberry’s view essentially agrees with Burk (et al.). The main difference lies in the definition of SSA. Allberry does not use the APA definition of orientation (which includes sexual attraction). Rather, he affirms that some people, due to the fall, will experience the temptation to romantically or sexually desire the same sex. And this desire ought to be mortified.
Despite this different emphasis, Allberry appears to gravitate towards Burk and Lambert’s definitions. So he affirms that SSA is a fallen desire that requires mortification and that sexual desire for the same-sex is sin (around 1:17:40).
In further agreement with Burk and Lambert, Allberry recently noted how he used the word “orientation” 5 years ago while he avoids it today because of its entanglement with the issue of identity. Simply put, the word orientation has evolved in its meaning and implications as the culture has.
So we need to be careful that we do not read the current meanings and implications of words into the past. Given our cultural moment, words that usually stay solid for many years have changed rapidly in their sense.
View 3: SSA as a Condition to Transform
Nate Collins uses the idea of givenness to speak about orientation, and interestingly he also uses the word disability to speak of “gayness” in certain circumstances (but not as a universal description). Wesley Hill in his book Spiritual Friendship seems to affirm this latter sensibility as well. In any case, both men would not use the APA definition to describe being “gay” or SSA. Rather, they see SSA (they do not prefer this term in practice) as something needing transformation.
Hill advocates for spiritual friendship and celibacy. Collins similarly notes numerous ways to live and flourish as Christians who happen to have intimate desires for the same-sex. To be clear, neither Collins nor Hill affirm that romantic or sexual desire for the same-sex is good. They affirm the wrongness of such a desire.
For example, Hill writes, “My homosexuality, my exclusive attraction to other men, my grief over it and my repentance …” (Washed and Waiting 2016: 218). Note that Hill calls his attraction to men something to grieve and something to repent of. He continues to explain how his repentance (among other things) shows what “it looks like for the Holy Spirit to be transforming me on the basis of Christ’s cross and his Easter morning triumph over death” (2016: 219). (See also Sam Storms’ confirming comments here).
Again, this particular view differs from view 1 because Collins and Hill do not define SSA as a sexual desire. Rather, SSA is sort of condition that must be transformed into something good: committed friendship, celibate service of God, and so on.
The reason why transformation is possible, according to Hill, is because of his Augustinian view of sin. If sin privates something good (say, beauty or love), then gay desire vitiates beauty (for example). Hence, to transform gay desire from vice to virtue requires the Spirit to untwist wrongful desires into virtuous ones—namely into what represents the nature of God.
As someone who also holds to a privation understanding of sin, I am sympathetic to Hill’s theological vantage point. But I am not persuaded that Hill helpfully applies this understanding to SSA.
One area where Hill conflicts with views 1 and 2 is his allowance for the phrase “gay Christian.” I understand that Hill aims to help those who struggle with SSA to live faithful lives. And so he makes pastoral decisions about his language. In my view, such a phrase wrongly describes a Christian (i.e., by using the anthropological word “gay” which theologically refers to a pattern of sinful desires).
I also do not find this language fitting because it gives too much credence to identity theory (I am gay, I am white, I am x, y, or z). While anthropological identity categories may have some benefit, Christian identities should primarily come from our covenantal heads: either Adam or Christ. (The word Christian itself comes from Christ). Secondarily, our identifies can come from nature (Gen 1:27) and ethnicity (Rev 7:9).
So Christians should avoid identifying as gay, straight, or heterosexual. Gendered identities, I think, give too much over to contemporary identity structures and not enough to our primary identities in God and secondarily in nature (capacity for fatherhood or motherhood), and in ethnicity.
Each of these three views affirms that sexual desire (lust) constitutes sin. But view 1 understands all SSA to include sexual desire and therefore to see all of it as sin. View 2 agrees with view 1 on the sinfulness of sexual desire. Yet view 2 emphasizes that SSA is a fallen condition that will sometimes result in sinful temptations, which must always be mortified.
View 3 understands SSA or “gayness” as something which can be transformed into a virtue through pursuing friendship or service to God. As with the other views, proponents also affirm the wrongness of same-sex sexual desire.
Proponents of views 1 and 2 will likely push back against view 3 because this latter view allows for the use of the phrase “gay Christian.” Likely, here is where the debate will continue. Rightly so. These matters are pastorally and theologically vital to get right.
Yet in the end, these three views are not far apart on the subject of SSA. Where they primarily differ is on the appropriateness of identity and the manner of sanctification. Yes, the differences here are real. Yet we should endeavour to understand each view for what it actually claims.
When we do that, I think we will see that all three views discussed above affirm the sinfulness of sexual desire and the rightness of mortifying the desires of the flesh. Yet each attempt to work out the implications of SSA in different ways.
Which ones are successful and which ones are not—well, that is another issue altogether. I only aimed to define where these views agree and differ with each other.
N.b.: I have not mentioned Living Out or Revoice. These two movements have diverse proponents and views. I wrote about those who have published books (Burk and Lambert, Hill, Collins, Butterfield, Shaw) or long-form articles (Strachan). For this reason, I cannot claim that the above definitions accurately define either of these two movements.
Mark Matthias says
Well, Wyatt — Ok, So, the Scripture makes a commitment in its position. They…argue that Jesus only experienced external forms of temptation. Jesus actually was tempted in every way we are…Hebrews 4:15.
They suggest this desire is itself sinful. The end of this desire is actually accomplished “sin’ which is covered in James 1:13-15. When the lust has conceived it brings forth death; undoubtedly, spiritual death since people don’t always die physically after sinning. That series of spiritual deaths add up to dim the spiritual perspective of the human. But before it is conceived as in verse 13, yes, it may be theologically ‘sinful’, but not yet established ‘sin’.
1 John 3:8-9 adds information regarding the path of spiritual death by the reality of “practicing sin”, in contrast to temporary stumbling (Luke 17:1) — where the heart is, is all important.
I think it takes a lot of careful thinking to unravel human desire and its relationship to sinfulness. I think it’s possible. But the answers don’t come like magic. You point to some good passages that warrant further thought.
Mark Matthias says
Right, I hear you — I will give it its due…