Content adapted from What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality by Kevin DeYoung
There is a growing discussion among those who agree that the Bible forbids homosexual practice about whether same-sex attraction itself is sinful. The issue requires careful thought, not least of all in defining our terms. What do we mean by words like orientation, attraction, and desire? What do others mean when they use these words? What does the Bible say, if anything, about what they should mean? While much of the underlying exegetical and theological work has a long history, the question itself is very new. It has come to special prominence as more and more Christians who experience same-sex attraction are, in a powerful picture of God’s grace, choosing to live celibate lives rather than violate the clear teaching of Scripture.
More work needs to be done to help Christians think through the issue of same-sex attraction in a way that is biblically faithful, pastorally sensitive, and culturally conversant. I confess that I don’t have all the answers, nor am I even sure of all the questions. But perhaps these building blocks—using the three categories I just mentioned—might help lay a good foundation for further reflection and application.
Block 1: Biblically Faithful
Whenever same-sex attraction manifests itself in “lustful intent,” the desire is sinful, just as it would be for someone attracted to persons of the opposite sex (Matt. 5:28). That much is clear. But might there be some neutral ground of approval or approbation that falls short of sinful desire? I think so. A brother may be able to discern that his sister is beautiful, or a grown daughter may be able to recognize that her dad is handsome, without committing any of the wrong kind of epithymia (desire). In the same way, the person with same-sex attraction may be able to apprehend someone of the same sex as beautiful or handsome without moral culpability. But let’s be careful: sinful desires aren’t always as obvious as the articulated thought, “I wish I could have sex with this person.” Sinful desires bubble up in long looks, second glances, entertainment choices, unhealthy emotional attachments, daydreams, and wandering eyes (Job 31:1). This goes for all of us, no matter our orientation.
As for the particularities of same-sex attraction, given the exegesis in this book we have to conclude that even unwanted homosexual desires are disordered (and if the desire is tantamount to “lustful intent,” then sinful). That is, as one friend who experiences same-sex attraction put it, same-sex attraction—used here to mean more than men simply desiring the company of other men or women of women—did not exist before the fall, comes as a result of it, and will not exist when the fall has been finally overcome. Desires are deemed good or bad not just by their intensity or sense of proportion, but based on their object. For a man to desire to have sex with another man (or a woman with a woman) is not the way things are supposed to be.
Block 2: Pastorally Sensitive
But that’s not all we must say. If we stop here, we will crush the spirits (or worse) of brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attraction through no conscious choice of their own. Every Christian wrestles with thoughts we can’t quite understand and feelings we never wanted. This is not a homosexual problem; it’s a human problem. I imagine a young man coming up to me as his pastor and saying, through tears, “I find myself attracted to men instead of women. I feel so dirty. I’m so ashamed. I feel bad, miserable, and mad at myself and like a failure before God every second of the day.” In this situation I would eventually get to the call of Christian discipleship to live in purity of thought and deed, but that’s not where I would start because this man already feels impure. I’d tell him that feeling this does not make him a failure, and that the desire to walk in holiness is evidence of the Spirit’s work in his life. I’d tell him about the good news of the gospel. I’d tell him that I’m not the way I’m supposed to be either. I’d tell him that Jesus is a sympathetic high priest, that he intercedes for us, that he knows what it’s like to be tempted and tried. I’d tell him that God gives us limps and thorns for our good and for our glory. I’d tell him that God can use our struggles to bless us and to bless others through us. If the person coming to me were a fifty-year-old planning to leave his wife and kids to run off with another man, my counsel might sound much different, but for the honest struggler we want to emphasize that disordered desires can arise in us unbidden and that finding yourself attracted to persons of the same sex does not destine you for a lifetime of guilt and self-loathing.
Block 3: Culturally Conversant
This is where the conversation gets even trickier because we aren’t just dealing with what the Bible says or what we should say but what the wider world thinks we are saying with the words we say. Again, defining our terms is crucial, as is discerning how others are using the same terms. It’s true (and a sometimes overlooked point) that terms like orientation and gay are used to signify much more than sexual activity or sexual desire. They may speak to a person’s preference for same-sex friendship, or a person’s place in much-needed community, or a person’s delight in same-sex camaraderie and conversation. When people speak of “orientation” or “being gay,” they may be speaking of much more than sex. But we must also bear in mind that the world probably doesn’t hear less than sex when we use these terms. For this reason, I prefer to speak of “same-sex attraction” or Rosaria Butterfield’s (not quite identical) phrase “unwanted homosexual desires.” However we parse out these terms—and we cannot avoid parsing terms (new terms are probably needed too)—we must at least be clear about what we mean when we talk about matters so emotionally charged and verbally complex.
In the years ahead the church will be forced to think through these issues, think of them often and then act. The church will have a tremendous opportunity to be slow to speak and quick to listen, to keep our Bibles open and our hearts too, and to speak the truth in love and show truth and grace. Let’s pray that we are up to the challenge and ready for the opportunity.
Content adapted from What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality by Kevin DeYoung, ©2015. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org. Photo by (Flickr CC) Danilo Urbina